While unionists heave a sigh of relief that devolution is finally over, ‘settled will’, concluded, the bigger picture suggests a different process at work. A guest piece by Our Kingdom writer Tom Griffin.
Following the agreement concluded at Hillsborough this week, Northern Ireland finally has a date for the devolution of policing and justice. Although the Irish peace process is a very particular case, it’s worth considering how this development relates to devolution in Scotland and Wales. A useful pointer in this respect is provided by Jenny Muir’s analysis in the Irish Left Review:
For unionists, and for the British Government, this is the end of the devolution process. At the press conference this morning, Gordon Brown referred to ‘closing the last chapter’ and Peter Robinson to ‘the completion of devolution’. Although further autonomy is possible within the UK, for example federalism, this is not on the unionist agenda. Of course nationalists think differently and for them today is another step along the road to a united Ireland.
The debate illustrates the way that the progress of devolution in one nation can affect arguments elsewhere. Slugger O’Toole’s Brian Walker highlighted Scotland’s long-established judicial system last month, in response to Jim Allister’s charge that devolving justice would be a derogation from British sovereignty. Likewise Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones highlighted developments in Northern Ireland, when making the case for further devolution last week. Addressing charges that new powers for the Welsh Assembly would bring Wales closer to independence, he said:
We would have significantly less powers than Northern Ireland so that would be like describing Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson as rabid separatists. Unless somebody’s prepared to argue the DUP have an agenda to see an independent Northern Ireland then I don’t think that argument holds much water.
This dynamic is likely to be crucial in the next phase of devolution. For Irish nationalists, the next obvious goal is to secure greater economic powers for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Those powers will be necessary to wean the northern economy of its dependency on the British Treasury and to convince the public on both sides of the border that a united Ireland can prosper. Given the North’s starting position, it will not be an easy or a short-term process. Much could depend on Scotland’s success in moving towards fiscal autonomy or independence. In a Northern Ireland flanked by two dynamic self-governing economies, the case for further powers could become unanswerable.