The case for meaningful devolution
28 March 2002
With a Talks Agreement now within sight despite all the hurdles, there is every chance that devolved government will return to Northern Ireland within the near future.
This will carry enormous implications for how this region is governed. Alliance firmly believes that the new Assembly must have meaningful legislative powers, including the ability to vary tax, in addition to the necessary administrative powers.
Alliance believes that decisions should be taken as close to the people affected as possible. Democratically accountable local politicians can be much more sensitive to the needs of a region than a distant national government.
We have had devolution before in Northern Ireland. Stormont failed, not because devolution was in itself wrong, but because only one section of our community had access to power and responsibility. Any new Assembly will have power-sharing at its core.
The essential choice we face in Northern Ireland is between on the one hand only administrative powers or on the other hand full legislative powers.
Under the first, the new Assembly would do little more than implement more sensitively decisions that have been taken elsewhere. Our Assembly would be little more than a glorified District Council.
In the latter, we would be able to directly influence the future of their region. Certain responsibilities would remain with Westminster. However, areas such as Health, Education, Agriculture, Economic Development, the Environment, Finance and Personnel, and possibly policing would be responsibilities of the Assembly. Our politicians would not only take administrative decisions, but have the power to pass legislation that better reflects the wishes of the local population.
It is worth recalling what the current system of Direct Rule entails. Whenever Stormont was abolished, Northern Ireland did not revert back to being ruled like any other part of the United Kingdom.
Instead, decisions are taken by unaccountable government ministers. Legislation is passed through “Orders in Council” rather than normal parliamentary procedures. In a sense, there always has been the presumption that devolved powers would be restored to Northern Ireland.
Under ‘direct rule’, the British Government has done many good things for Northern Ireland. They have implemented many reforms necessary to take account of a divided society and have continued to seek a political agreement.
But by their very nature, the Government takes an overall national perspective to their decisions. This does not always work to our advantage in Northern Ireland.
The nation-state is losing some of its dominance within a globalising world. National governments can no longer can provide the answers to all of society’s problems. Certain functions are increasingly exercised at the European or international level. At the same time, many other powers are increasingly being devolved down to regional governments.
With regional government becoming the norm in both UK and the rest of Europe, Northern Ireland is going to be in competition with other regions, particularly both Scotland and Wales.
The forthcoming political agreement will address new North-South arrangements. Already the Republic of Ireland has considerable advantages over Northern Ireland. For example, it is able to offer incentives to investors based on tax rates and stability, while Northern Ireland can only compete on the less efficient basis of subsidies.
Relations with the South will include both co-operation but will also feature areas of intense competition. There is a danger that there could be a very uneven relationship between a region on the one hand and an independent state (albeit within the European Union) on the other.
Thus the stronger the powers given to any Northern Ireland Assembly, the more balanced and workable this new relationship will be.
The case for meaningful powers is therefore very strong. However, legislative powers are greatly enhanced with the ability to vary tax. The canny Scots have already voted for these powers to go with their strong version of devolution.
No one is suggesting that Northern Ireland should be left to its support itself. It will still be dependent upon a subvention from the UK Exchequer, just like Scotland, Wales and parts of England. The Government has a duty to ensure parity throughout the UK in areas such as social security benefits.
The ability to vary taxes will allow the preferences of people at a regional level to be more fully respected, they could concentrate resources on the services that are the bigger priorities for them. Do we want to have a superior education system in Northern Ireland? If so are we prepared to consider raising the necessary additional finance? Tax-varying powers gives us this option; it would be up to us to decide whether to use it. Both politicians and people will have a better appreciation of the costs of services, and the difficult decisions involved in allocating scarce resources.
Devolution is not going to be a panacea for every problem in Northern Ireland. But it will allow local people to take on more responsibility for shaping their future.
Seamus Close is Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party.