Northern Ireland could stymie "super-department"

Robin Wilson
13 August 2008

Robin Wilson (Belfast, Policy Analyst): The suggestion that the various secretaries of state for the nations and regions should be wrapped up into one department has made sense ever since devolution was established in the initial years of ‘New’ Labour. But devolution to Scotland, Wales and (always shakily) Northern Ireland was, paradoxically, characterised by the patrician English trope of amateurish muddling through. And so the repeated case made by the Constitution Unit for a formal system of intergovernmental relations, as in Canada or Australia—and of which the unified department would have been one element, along with Lords reform to make the second chamber a voice for the nations and regions—fell on deaf Whitehall ears. Other departments in effect became ‘English’ departments, even when their actions had implications for devolved counterparts.

A decision to move belatedly towards having a single minister for the devolved jurisdictions at the cabinet table—a further step from the rather awkward job-sharing of recent years—would certainly be welcome, if media speculation is borne out. But a fly in the ointment remains Northern Ireland—and if such a move were premised on a belief that imminent devolution of policing and justice powers would slot in the last piece of the jigsaw of a settlement for the troubled region, this could turn out to be a mistaken assumption.

While it is true that the first and deputy first ministers, Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, have agreed that policing and justice should be devolved as a single department under one minister, and that minister should not be from either of their parties, they have not agreed on the critical question—when it is to happen. 

The DUP is in no hurry: it has no intention of accepting the transfer unless and until it can claim it has put the IRA out of business. Mr Robinson will not be retreading the path of David Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist leader who was discredited by the failure of the IRA to comply with the decommissioning deadline in the Belfast agreement, by the cynical way in which Tony Blair as prime minister treated this as a mere matter of Realpolitik and by the ruthless manner in which the DUP exploited Mr Trimble’s discomfiture.

As for SF, the party is facing growing grassroots alienation over how its political strategy for a united Ireland has stalled, and indeed how every demand it makes on behalf of Northern Ireland Catholics—from the abolition of selection at 11 to an Irish-language bill—is blocked by the DUP, armed with the veto power it secured, as a condition for accepting power-sharing with SF, in the St Andrews agreement of October 2006. That agreement may have slated devolution of policing and justice for May 2008 but that deadline also came and went.

London and Dublin will renew pressure on the DUP in September, having lent on the Independent Monitoring Commission to produce an ‘ad hoc’ report that month which they hope will show the IRA has wound up its structure, having wound down its campaign. But the most senior Catholic policeman in Northern Ireland, Peter Sheridan, says this has yet to happen. And, indeed, with the current bemused mood among the ‘republican base’, and with the ‘dissident republicans’ gaining recruits, Gerry Adams and Mr McGuinness will have no desire to remove the last vestige of their authoritarian control—shaky even in west Belfast and south Armagh—or in so doing so to make finally clear, including to themselves, that no residual organisation is being retained for a political rainy day.

Mr Adams is very conscious—because Mr Robinson has made it very public—that the DUP leadership is seeking in the long run to replace the current, four-party, mandatory executive set-up at Stormont with a voluntary power-sharing alternative which would, in effect, be unionist-dominated. The republicans were happy that they could best the former bellowing bigot, Rev Ian Paisley, reduced by age to sentimentalism. But since Mr Robinson assumed the reins of government and party power the devolved Executive Committee has only been allowed to meet once by SF and no meeting is envisaged before mid-September—a three-month break. 

Mr Adams is determined to show, having not deigned to assume ministerial office himself, that he remains a power in the land to which Mr Robinson (and, indirectly, the current prime minister, Gordon Brown) must bend. If the DUP does not shift, he wants London and Dublin to exercise the joint authority they threatened to prod Mr Paisley into dealing with the Provos.

Meantime, ordinary Northern Ireland citizens are left increasingly frustrated by the inability and unwillingness of the political class to reach accommodations on the outstanding issues, with 24 executive papers still in the pending tray. These include an anti-poverty strategy and an affordable-housing review—which seem rather more immediate to many in these straitened times than whether or not the police officer in the passing car is or is not accountable to politicians at Stormont.

The Northern Ireland secretary, Shaun Woodward, has become virtually invisible in the region. But if Mr Brown thinks that means he can treat Northern Ireland as normalised, wrapping up the Northern Ireland Office into a Department of the Regions, he may well find Messrs Adams and Robinson, however unwelcome, continuing to bang separately on the door of No 10—to demand he apply his clunking fist to support their side in the sectarian arm-wrestle between them.

And that is the larger difficulty. Devolution to Northern Ireland had two contradictory goals: to provide SF with as political place in the sun, which frightened the Protestant community into the arms of the DUP, and to promote reconciliation through power-sharing, of which the DUP is congenitally incapable. It is unlikely to be put on a secure footing by another patched-up deal supervised by London and Dublin. Only more radical constitutional re-engineering, removing the features of the Belfast, and still more St Andrews, agreements which institutionalised ethnicity, will provide the enduring settlement obviating the need for a proconsular supervisor at Hillsborough.

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