What now for the Union? – The London Economic

What now for the Union?

By Tomás McGoldrick, Ireland Correspondent

After the historic vote on whether Scotland would retake its place among the nations of the world resulted in a no, the prediction was that the issue would be settled for a generation.

What seems to be happening, however, is that the closeness of the Scottish result has opened up the Pandora’s box of the hodge-podge, cobbled together nature of the UK.

The decisive swing towards Yes in the closing stages of the referendum campaign has panicked the British establishment into offering the Scots what the majority had wanted in the first place, namely extra powers for the Scottish parliament amounting to what was once called home rule, but is now known as devo-max.

Despite both Cameron and Miliband playing politics with the issue, it is looking likely that Scotland will receive these extra powers. If they do not materialise, expect a second independence referendum in a matter of years, as in Quebec, and next time round you can expect a yes vote.

The questions raised for the rest of the UK are fundamental, and could herald the greatest shake up of the state since what was then the Irish Free State gained its independence in 1922.

English voters are starting to wake up to the fact that the Celtic fringe of the UK has been enjoying a greater level of direct democracy and autonomy than they have. There is also a growing resentment in England at having to pay for the perks enjoyed by the rest of the UK, such as free prescriptions and free university education. While it is clear that Scotland at least is not subsidised by England, it can’t be denied that Wales and Northern Ireland are.

Those regions of England which feel they do not get enough attention and money from London have started to demand the powers that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have enjoyed.

Whether Westminster will be reformed to restrict non-English MPs from voting on English only issues, or more powers are given to English councils and cities, neither Labour nor the Conservatives can deny that there is a real desire for more power for the English.

There has been little mention of what will happen to Northern Ireland in all of this. Part of the problem is that in Scotland, Wales and England there is a clear desire for more power to be devolved. The Northern Ireland parties, perhaps unsurprisingly, are divided on the issue; Sinn Féin want more devolution, while the DUP want to actually roll back devolution by returning powers to Westminster.

The Northern assembly is embroiled in one of its periodic crises, this time over welfare reform. Sinn Féin are refusing to implement these reforms, and have launched a campaign to resist the ‘Tory cuts’ while the DUP argue they have no choice but to implement the reforms. Next month the fines imposed by London for this act of non-compliance will kick in, and the assembly will lose about £1 billion. It is hard to see what compromises can be reached, as it suits both sides to be intransigent. For Sinn Féin the priority is increasing their vote in the south of Ireland. To do this they will have to replace Labour as the main party of the Irish left, and this simply cannot be done if they are seen to be implementing welfare cuts in the north.

Peter Robinson has cited the impasse over welfare cuts as a prime example of the Northern assembly not being functional and has threatened to walk away, leading to yet another collapse of Stormont. What this will mean is a period of direct rule, during which the Tories and Lib Dems can implement their welfare cuts, we can then have elections to a new assembly and everyone is re-elected and gets their old jobs back. Both sides can then say the cuts are not their fault, and blame London.

If this is the whole rigmarole which needs to be gone through whenever a difficult decision needs to be made, it is hard to argue with Robinson’s view that the whole system is not fit for purpose. Is there any point in London handing over more powers to Belfast if the politicians cannot even agree that they want them?

What form this direct rule would take is unclear, would the north go back to having London rule with our modern day viceroy Theresa Villiers? Or would we see some involvement from the Dublin government with joint sovereignty on the table? With Sinn Féin looking like they could get into a coalition government in the south, you could have a situation where republicans are running the north alongside British ministers, and unionists are excluded entirely.

Then there are the increasing calls for a border poll. If the Scottish independence campaign was sometimes portrayed as divisive and intimidatory, then a campaign on whether to scrap the Irish border could make the Scottish debate look like a love-in. Nevertheless there will be a poll eventually, and it may be wise for unionists to agree to one now while the southern economy is still in the doldrums.

Northern Ireland is increasingly looking like it is unworkable. The structures put in place were only meant to keep the peace, not provide effective governance. As the other parts of the UK demand more democracy and accountability, and English resentment of funding the ‘regions’ increases, the future of Northern Ireland hasn’t looked so uncertain for a century.

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