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Northern Ireland: Is Devolution the Answer?
Comment writer Alex Taljaard considers whether Northern Ireland is heading towards a return of political violence, and what can help
Ireland’s tumultuous politics is something which defined the last century in British politics, with the shaky power sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin serves as a reminder of the ‘Troubles’. Yet few within the Westminster bubble pay much attention to Stormont, Northern Irelands devolved assembly. However, after the resignation of Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, leading to the calling of an emergency election, Northern Irish politics has been catapulted back into the limelight, bringing with it a resurgence of support for a unified Ireland. Why, then, is Ireland slipping back into Troubles-esque territory, and what does this say about the effectiveness of the devolved government?
Following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, power has been shared between the unionist DUP and the republican Sinn Féin in an attempt foster a compromise between the two groups. While Stormont, one of three devolved assemblies in the UK, has certain legislative powers, others are reserved for Westminster only. This has left many supporters of a more independent Northern Ireland feeling short changed. The legislative differences between Stormont and Westminster have been exacerbated by Brexit, something which the majority in Northern Ireland voted against.
“Why then is Ireland slipping back into Troubles-esque territory, and what does this say about the effectiveness of the devolved government?
Both Stormont and the Scottish Assembly, Holyrood, were hoping to be given a say over whether or not to trigger Article 50. However, while the recent Supreme Court ruling has extended this right to Westminster MPs, the members of the devolved assemblies will not be consulted. The Welsh Assembly likely had less of a desire for this due to the fact that the majority of Wales voted in favour of leaving the EU. For Stormont on the other hand, this snub constitutes a serious problem, even more so than for Scotland.
With the recent news of an imminent exit from the single market, it is looking much more likely that a hard border will be required between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, still a member of the EU. Many in Northern Ireland are fearful of the consequences of such a border, with many worrying that trade will become much more difficult between the two countries – something which many producers of goods rely heavily upon. This could very well lead to many in Northern Ireland questioning their place in the UK, raising the risk of a break-up of the union.
With this underlying tension, it is no wonder many see the recently called emergency election as a call to arms in Northern Ireland. The recently dubbed ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal is what led to Martin McGuiness’ resignation and sparked the election. A Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme was supposed to reward those using biomass systems such as wood-burners. However, for every £1 used on green energy, £1.60 was given in subsidy, meaning many businesses could make profit simply from burning lots of wood. Many called for Arlene Foster, the first minister, the resign over the scandal, and it has reignited animosity between the two many parties of Northern Ireland. If Stormont are unable to form a stable government in the aftermath of the election, Westminster may have to take the reigns - a major loss for those supportive of devolution.
The tensions in Northern Ireland have reached boiling point, and have now spilled over into everyday life. On the 22nd of January, a police officer was shot in Belfast by a group calling themselves the New IRA, with Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton stated that attack was part of a ‘warped and outdated plan’ by ‘violent dissident republicans’. Many are feeling a frightening sense of déjà vu, as events are beginning to mirror those of the Troubles. However, to use this as an argument that devolution has failed is wrongheaded, as it is because of the power-sharing devolution agreement that peace was finally found during the 1990s. The problem, then, is not too much devolution, but more that Westminster still hangs on to many important policy areas that Northern Irish people feel like they have the right to control. Whether or not this will lead to a Northern Irish succession remains to be seen, but a hard Brexit, leading to a hard border, will surely put Northern Ireland and England’s relationship to the test.
Article by Alex Taljaard