Friday, 24 October 2008

Celebrate Parliament's sovereignty, don't attack it

The government’s procedural manoeuvre, in order to block parliament voting on an amendment to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, was widely applauded by unionist politicians. Indeed Jeffrey Donaldson had gone so far as to threaten ‘constitutional crisis’ should the amendment be considered and accepted. On last night’s Hearts and Minds, Donaldson continued to argue that it was not Westminster’s business to impose abortion legislation on Northern Ireland.

Although Noel Thompson made a passable fist of exposing the paradox at the heart of Donaldson’s contention, he did not make the most pertinent point. Abortion is a justice issue. Policing and justice are issues which have not yet been devolved. The Sewell Convention, West Lothian question etc. may be related issues, but they are merely incidental, because policing and justice are reserved matters and the crux of the DUP’s present impasse with Sinn Féin is that the unionist party believes they should remain reserved for the time being.

Inevitably policing and justice will be devolved, but I tend to agree that it would be better to reserve those powers to Westminster. For one thing, women in Northern Ireland might not then forever be denied NHS services available throughout the rest of the UK. And on a broader level, minimising the extent of devolution is better for the health of the Union, although that seems to be a secondary concern in the minds of anyone but a handful of UK unionists.

O’Neill has picked up on the Daily Express’s interpretation of comments by David Cameron, on the campaign trail in Glenrothes. The paper claims Cameron went “his furthest yet in admitting that devolution has weakened the link between Scotland and England”. The quoted comments do not quite support the weight which the Express wishes to attribute to them. Nevertheless O’Neill contends, “the truth is, of course, that devolution has weakened the Union”. If Cameron did not say that devolution had weakened the Union, then he should have said it.

Realistically devolution is here to stay and additionally it plays a pivotal role in the settlement which has brought relative peace and stability to Northern Ireland. I would, however, agree with O’Neill’s thesis that asymmetric constitutional meddling by the Labour government has visited untold damage upon the Union. Whether more thorough, more thoughtful reform might have devolved power without this collateral damage, I do not know. I do know that Labour’s model has been a disaster and that the more power is devolved the more thoroughly that disaster is exacerbated.

Moral issues of abortion aside, it is deeply disquieting to hear so called unionists argue against Westminster’s interference in matters which are still reserved to our national parliament. Sovereignty resides at Westminster and it is the essence of unionism to protect that sovereignty, whether the government of the day elect to devolve its elements or not. As a unionist, I do not want more power devolved to Stormont, or to Holyrood, or to Cardiff Bay. I have accepted the necessity of the devolution which has taken place, but I am happy for Westminster to retain responsibility for as wide a remit as possible.

Additionally, I remain mindful that parliament is sovereign and that it can exert powers which it has previously chosen to devolve, at its own discretion. If, for example, the actions of a devolved administration are inimical to the broader values of the United Kingdom, Westminster positively must act to countermand that administration.

I do not, like Jeffrey Donaldson, attack parliament’s ability to legislate for Northern Ireland. As a unionist, I celebrate when devolution is checked and the sovereignty of Westminster asserted.

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