The tendency to assume that devolution has begun a process which will inevitably result in the break up of the United Kingdom, Arthur Aughey characterises as ‘endism’. If its tenets have not become all pervading, they have certainly come to form a common thread in the nation’s constitutional discourse. Arthur, like Vernon Bogdanor, in his book ‘The New British Constitution’, identifies a swathe of journalists, academics and even politicians, who have succumbed to endist logic, in print. They range from nationalists, for whom the ‘inevitable’ end of Britain is an aspiration (Tom Nairn), to gloomy unionists, prescribing irreversible wrongs which have been visited on a noble constitution (John Redwood).
To the body of endist literature identified by Aughey and Bogdanor, we might add ‘A Useful Fiction’, Welsh journalist Patrick Hannan’s superficial skate across the surface of modern Britain. I note too, that Ian Jack, the columnist whose elegant prose enlivens Saturday editions of the Guardian, has written a book called ‘The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain’. I have yet to get hold of a copy, and although the title could allude to either a declinist or endist interpretation of the UK’s history, it is, at least, motioning towards the trend which identifies a state whose dysfunction is terminal. Jack is hardly an archetypal nationalist, but he has expressed his scepticism as to whether a future Conservative government could claim a mandate to govern outside England.
Although the weight of literature probably favours this endist interpretation, it is by no means unchallenged, and the rejoinders tend to be higher quality, for bucking the intellectual trend. Bogdanor’s constitutional survey argues that Britishness is a more robust concept than its detractors allow. Highlighting civic deferral to Westminster’s sovereignty, which persists in each of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom, he contends that Britishness, defined by adherence to that institution, is both healthier and more organic in nature than common wisdom has understood.
The idea that Parliament embodies the common allegiance which draws together four nations, comprising one nation state, was at the heart of Richard Rose’s monograph, ‘Understanding the United Kingdom’ (1982). Rose uses the metaphor of the ‘Fifth Nation’ to describe the overarching framework of political allegiance to which citizens with diverse cultural identities can subscribe. O’Neill has argued that Rose’s image is redundant, or at least needs updated, with the advent of devolution. In a recent article I maintained that it is more relevant than ever, given the centrifugal political forces, at work in modern Britain.
Whether one favours the endist thesis which has accompanied devolution, or the unionist rejoinder, it is universally accepted that constitutional change has posed a new set of challenges to the integrity of the United Kingdom. It was introduced, largely, in response to nationalist claims, in Scotland and Wales. Although its aim was to neutralise those claims, there can be little doubt that, ten years on, few commentators contend that devolution has strengthened the position of those nations / regions within the Union.
Bogdanor is right to argue that devolution, as established in the late nineties, has yet to ‘bed down’ as a constitutional norm. But whilst unionists in Scotland and Wales might recognise the benefits of regional institutions, and accept the new context in which their unionism must operate, it is rarely asserted that devolution has actively reinforced the UK as an integral unit.
In Northern Ireland, where devolution was negotiated under the auspices of the Belfast Agreement, and instigated by the subsequent Northern Ireland Act, unionist attitudes are rather different. Indeed, for this UK region, where devolution saw, in parallel, the removal of an irredentist claim by a neighbouring sovereign state upon British territory, and acceptance, by Irish nationalists, of Northern Ireland’s right to self-determine, as a unit, there is a plausible argument that unionist confidence has been buoyed, and the Union with Great Britain strengthened, by reintroduction of a measure of self-government at Stormont. With a concerted attempt to normalise politics vis-á- vis the rest of the United Kingdom, such an outcome is at least achievable, if unionists here are prepared to adopt a constructive outlook.
In his biography of David Trimble, whose Ulster Unionists played the lead role in negotiating the Belfast Agreement from a pro-Union perspective, Dean Godson notes that the UUP leader was able to sell devolution to his followers as part of a wider UK settlement. To a degree, after Scotland and Wales had chosen the route of self-government in 1997 referenda, Trimble could claim that he was seeking to ensure that Northern Ireland received the same rights as other, non English regions of the United Kingdom. It was a narrative of standardisation which was not available to other pro-Union devolutionists, campaigning for Assemblies in Edinburgh or Cardiff.
In addition, the idea of devolved institutions was not novel to unionists in Northern Ireland, as it was to those in Scotland and Wales. Not only had a staunchly unionist, sub national parliament operated just a generation previously, but it was remembered with a degree of nostalgia by precisely the section of society whose allegiance to the UK was purportedly the strongest. In seeking to re-establish devolved government in Northern Ireland, Trimble was working with the grain of unionist inclination, rather than, for the most part, against its better judgment.
Whilst, when they weighed the case for devolved government in Scotland and Wales, unionists might have fretted that their countries’ membership of the United Kingdom could weaken, the mere establishment of institutions caused fewer unionists in Northern Ireland anxiety. Power sharing mechanisms, a consultative role for the Republic of Ireland government, symbolic issues such as prisoner release and the dissolution of the RUC were the prime concerns of the Good Friday Agreement’s ‘no’ campaign, rather than structural aspects of the UK constitution. Unionist scepticism about devolution, as a concept, was a hurdle cleared in 1921.
In Northern Ireland, unionists decided whether David Trimble had, as he claimed, achieved a strong constitutional result for unionism, and weighed their findings against the prospect of terrorist releases, republicans in government and a restructured police force.
As regards the constitutional argument, pro Agreement unionists had a strong case. The principle of consent is at the heart of the devolved settlement; accepted by the British and Republic of Ireland governments, as well as each of the signatory parties. The southern constitution no longer lays claim to the six counties of Northern Ireland, which it previously considered national territory. Unionists share power, but are guaranteed to form the majority of any executive. Although the Republic’s government is permitted a consultative role, it is subject to the scrutiny of the Assembly and its remit was successfully restricted to a handful of areas.
Bew et al, and other commentators, have argued, convincingly, that Trimble achieved a functional success for unionism. That the UUP leader chose to prioritise constitutional issues, to the exclusion of more emotive and symbolic areas, has not served to dissipate the original structural soundness of the deal which he struck. Powersharing was subsequently undermined by Sinn Féin recalcitrance and the Labour government’s flexible attitude to republican commitments, but the Belfast Agreement remains the basis by which Northern Ireland’s continued membership of the UK can be most effectively secured.
Throughout the Kingdom, devolution is now firmly established. Without precipitating a constitutional crisis, it is difficult to envisage Westminster unilaterally withdrawing sovereignty which it has delegated to Stormont, Holyrood or Cardiff Bay. In common with other unionists throughout the UK, proponents of the Union, in Northern Ireland, had better resign themselves to working within the confines of a devolved settlement, for the foreseeable future. Their task is to reconcile the existence of self-government with a strong and flourishing ‘fifth nation’ overarching the UK’s component parts.
Northern Ireland, where the apparatus of devolution has been shaped by, and favours, unionist concerns, should be seen as a unique case. The centrifugal forces of nationalism, it can be contended, have been dissipated, rather than strengthened, by the Agreement which re-established a Stormont Assembly. The health of unionism, it can plausibly be argued, is dependent on embedding institutions and improving them, rather than undermining their basis, or pruning their functions (at least in the short to medium term).
There is no longer, it is true, a single set of rights or entitlements associated with British citizenship. Our quasi federal constitution has put an end to such an aspiration. It is, however, possible to identify core political rights and entitlements associated with common allegiance to the United Kingdom Parliament. For the health of that institution, and the benefit of its citizens, it is desirable to strengthen and extend that core. In so doing, we are underpinning the ‘Fifth Nation’ which Rose propounds.
It is important that in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, representation at Wesminster continues to carry real meaning, despite the devolution of areas of responsibility to regional institutions. The ability to help elect, or dispense with, a government is a case in point. Haltingly, this entitlement is being extended to voters in Northern Ireland. It is a project which graphically illustrates the substance, and the strength, of the ‘Fifth Nation’ concept.