The Scotsman might be a tad premature when it states that policing and justice will be devolved to Northern Ireland ‘within days’, but certainly whenever the least pretext presents itself, Gordon Brown’s government intends to do away with separate Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Whether the new minister’s post is referred to as Secretary of State for Regions or Nations, it now appears inevitable that Labour will deliver another blow to the Union which they purport to value so highly.
The NIO is loathed by both nationalists and the ‘ourselves alone’ wing of the DUP alike. But removing the ministry and its equivalents in Scotland and Wales will diminish representation for those regions in central government. Furthermore, even if the DUP and Sinn Féin manage to reach an accommodation on policing and justice, institutions in Northern Ireland will not then become instantly more effective or more robust. There are other fundamental issues about which the parties profoundly disagree and the nature of the carve-up over which they preside ensures that there is constantly a temptation to invoke the nuclear option and collapse power-sharing.
The Conservatives have raised concerns about these proposals. They argue that the respective ministries must remain separate in order that secretaries of state can argue the case for their allotted region around the cabinet table. That is part of how government works and amalgamating the departments will interfere with effective governance. Furthermore, it is Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson’s opinion, that there is still an important oversight role, which the NIO must carry out, as regards refining the institutions here.
The Tories are correct on this occasion. Labour’s ceaseless constitutional meddling is about to weaken another of the threads which binds together the Union.