How Stands the Union — Will It Still Stand?

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been re-established and functioning since May 8th under the the direction of the Joint Executive consisting of the main parties, proportionately to the number of seats they hold. This is mandatory per the Belfast Agreement 1998, as amended in legislation agreed at the special conference in Saint Andrew's in Scotland when the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to nominate Ian Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.

However it may fare in the future as they grapple with events and practicalities they have successfully coped with the annual Drumcree protest, other Orange parades, July 11th bonfires and 12th July demonstrations without serious problems. There were, however, some stone throwing incidents, attacks on Orange Halls and violent internecine incidents among Loyalist paramilitaries.

After some angry disputations the Scottish Nationalist Party, which won 47 seats to Labour's 46 in their May parliamentary elections, are running a minority administration with assistance from the Green Party and the acquiesence of the Conservatives and others.

In Wales, where the Labour Party failed to win an overall majority, they first set up a minority administration. For a time it operated under the threat of being usurped by the possible so called 'Rainbow Coalition' of Plaid Cymru, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats which were involved in prolonged negotiations to form an alternative government.

Following an offer to Plaid Cymru from Labour to discuss a coalition, including the sharing of ministerial posts, a programme for government was agreed at specially convened conferences by both parties. There is now the prospect of a stable coalition administration in place for the next four years of the Assembly's life. Consequently the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Independents are in opposition.

So in Northern Ireland, mandatory under the 1998 Agreement and in Wales by the two party voluntary arrangement they can settle down to sorting out the practical and organisational decisions of government. The position in Scotland is somewhat more problematical.

There is of course in Wales, in Plaid Cymru, an underlying aspiration towards independence from the UK. This has the potential of surfacing when additional powers come into operation and more extensive ones are requested. This independence movement resonates more strongly in Scotland.

During the elections in Wales and Scotland the Nationalist parties argued that the Irish republic via its independence had made great economic progress through its membership of the European union. Such freedom of running their own affairs was an example as to how their countries might prosper were they to attain such status.

The results, however, although they both improved their representation did not indicate that they as yet have enough support to mount a campaign in either country. In Scotland they are likely to keep the issue in a prominent position, hoping that by governing successfully they might improve and advance their aims.

So at the momentthey will concentrate on demonstrating their competence and try to undermine the largest alternative grouping, the Labour Party, and build a greater drive for separation.

All three devolved assemblies function within the parameters of their remit as set out in Westminster legislation approved by referendum in their respective sections of the UK. Northern Ireland differs especially in that their situation is also governed by the fact that the Irish Republic involved in that the Belfast Agreement of 1998 is registered as an international treaty between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Funding, the extent of which involves representations and discussions between the devolved and central administrations on the basis of formulas determined by the UK Parliament, is still dependent on Westminster.

In Northern Ireland, where there are joint cross border projects, there is some financial input from the Republic of Ireland. In Wales the Programme for Government (the formal Agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru) envisages the extension of powers, already part of the Westminster Government's legislative programme. The parties to the Coalition are jointly campaigning for a referendum for the Welsh Assembly obtaining the same status as the Scottish Parliament. Scotland has its own legal structure and also has the powers to introduce additional limited taxation.

Such trends as these are only potential at present, the development of which depends on the dynamics of the interaction and flexibility of the structures and relationships between and within the parties and governing administrations and the public reaction and perceptions as to how their needs are met.

I would question the use of Ireland's path as the model that Wales or Scotland should tread. The historical conditions which existed in Ireland in previous centuries, producing its conflicts were and are not of the same dimension in the present Union of England, Scotland and Wales (Great Britain).

Now that Northern Ireland is to receive half a billion of European assistance to help rebuild its economy it is questionable whether, with the accession of central and eastern European countries to the level of 27 in the EU, the same level of finance, as in the past to Ireland, will be available to Wales and Scotland if they become independent members.

The new Labour Prime Minister has recently proposed that it is necessary to consider some form of written constitution for the United Kingdom. That may be required to enshrine more specifically the relationship between the UK Parliament and the devolved assemblies together with their ability to contact other countries, organisations and governments.

Furthermore, the parameters of the Council of the Isles, which consists of the devolved assemblies, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Guernsney, Jersey and other Channel Island administrations and the UK itself might be defined more fully.

In the future the role of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) and its relationship with the Council of the Isles and within the European Union may be developed and enlarged, though not specifically part of the proposed written UK Constitution.

There are also developments in the European Union where attempts are being made to produce an amending treaty as an alternative to the proposed 'Constitution' which was voted down in referendums held in France and the Netherlands.

The argument in the UK between the main parties is now one of whether the proposed treaty (the practice in regard to treaties has hitherto been ratification by Parliament) should be subject to referendum.

In the Republic of Ireland it appears that their constitution requires this. Other EU states may similarly be required to do so.

It is alleged that the former UK Prime Minister's (Tony Blair) undertaking during an election to do so still stands. This has been raised at Westminster by the Conservative opposition leader, David Cameron. The government under Gordon Brown, however, says it is in essence a treaty and so need not be put to a referendum.

In my view difficulties will arise from attempts to reform both the UK and European structures of government as the results may determine the line up of political groupings. Moreover, should it hold up legislation on urgent issues it might precipitate an early general election to resolve the contentions.

It is conceivable that the question of Scottish independence and even that of Wales, might be thrown into the melting pot in such a context with the English electorate, or some at least of them, wishing to acquiesce to the pressure.

I emphasise that this would have a very problematic and deleterious effect for, as I mentioned earlier, the historical conditions and imperatives do not parallel those that impelled Ireland in that direction.

Considering recent history I think that the Belfast Agreement might just resist any change to get involved in such a movement...

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 26 July 2007.

Samuel H. Boyd