The SDLP released its election manifesto in Belfast yesterday. Despite the party’s stated commitment to a shared future, the document has a decidedly green tinge. Not only does Margaret Ritchie envisage northern representatives gradual integration into the Republic’s political institutions, she also champions a form of ‘Devolution Max’ which, she hopes, will prefigure a united Ireland.
The irony is that the SDLP’s vision of a Northern Ireland Assembly acquiring fiscal levers currently held by Westminster, will probably appeal to some people who describe themselves as unionists. The DUP, in particular, is wont to describe every intervention by Westminster parties in this region, as unwarranted interference.
The DUP presented devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont as a boon for Northern Ireland, at the same time as Sinn Féin celebrated another prerogative wrested from London and ’repatriated’ to the island of Ireland. Although the UUP was steadfast enough to oppose the justice move, it also emphasised that it had no difficulty with devolution in theory.
Within the context of power-sharing, the Ulster Unionists theoretical support for devolved justice made a degree of sense. It finished off a process which the party had put in train with the Belfast Agreement. And the Agreement, by and large, entrenched Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.
Wherever devolution is celebrated, by unionists, for devolution’s sake, however, there is a profound contradiction. Although the UK’s two devolved Assemblies and one devolved Parliament are here to stay, there isn’t a shadow of doubt that Labour’s constitutional vandalism has substantially undermined the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Richard Rose described the House of Commons as a ’fifth nation’ which bound together the interests of Britain’s regions. It’s authority, and relevance, has been substantially reduced by competing institutions, each with its own gravitational pull.
For a genuine unionist, with his principal political allegiance to shared British institutions, the constant proviso that ’this is a devolved matter’, which marked the first national leader’s debate, could only be cause for regret. It signalled a Parliament which had carelessly dispersed its authority to some regions, while retaining it in others.
Genuine concern for the Union and its integrity is almost always accompanied by suspicion of greater devolution. When Northern Ireland was created, unionists accepted the creation of a separate parliament only with reluctance and scepticism. Sadly, by the 1950s, many former unionists had become seduced by the trappings of their quasi-state.
Where the existence of the devolved parliament was championed for its own sake, authentic unionism died. When normal parliamentary sovereignty over Northern Ireland was resumed, the inheritors of genuine, Carsonite unionism championed full integration with the rest of the United Kingdom, while the little Ulstermen aggravated to get their Stormont back.
Today, the UK’s constitutional landscape has been irrevocably altered. In Scotland and Wales, devolved institutions are popular, but although some parts might feel they are greater, the whole is decidedly weaker. And, unfortunately, it is not possible to unpick the settlement which Labour carelessly inflicted upon Britain.
A national unionist party, like the Conservatives, has to work within the constraints of devolution and balance carefully sensitivities in devolved regions with national interests. Conspicuously the Tories have attempted this awkward task by wrestling with, and eventually accepting, the main conclusions of the Calman Commission’s report and struggling to resolve the infamous West Lothian question.
The UUP, in recent times, has allowed its genuine unionist wing to prevail. It has thrown its lot in with the Conservatives and declared willing to wrestle with the larger dilemmas involved in maintaining the UK as a viable state. The logical outworking is that local issues should be tackled within the overarching, national context and with the Kingdom's integrity in mind. The DUP, and dissenting elements within the UUP, as ever, have their eyes only on Little Ulster.
In Northern Ireland, our Assembly is part of a power-sharing settlement aimed at maintaining equilibrium between Irish nationalists and unionists. How much the actual institutions themselves have contributed to stabilising our place within the United Kingdom is up for debate, but the framework which removed a rolling challenge to our constitutional status is dependent on them. At least for the time being.
The fact remains that more devolution is always likely to be more convivial to nationalists than authentic unionists. And the Labour government which visited so much damage upon the Union will do it further damage if it retains any degree of power after the election.