I received this wonderful picture of Stormont in a Tweet this evening from Stephen Wallace. Check out his blog http://www.hibernialandscapes.com/blogposts/2014/9/17/the-parliament-buildings
It looks like the sun is setting over the Northern Ireland Parliament which, given the current political difficulties, seems rather apt. However look closer and you realize that this is a sunrise. A new dawn for Stormont.
The Scottish referendum and subsequent constitutional debate within the UK may have provided just that – a fresh chance for Stormont to get its house in order.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers is reportedly poised to hold fresh all-party talks with Irish and American involvement to get things moving again.
There is much to sort. But the fundamental change in the UK national debate we’ve seen since last Thursday gives me hope that a better deal for devolution in Northern Ireland can be forged. Forget Sinn Fein’s border poll and the DUP’s Executive reshuffle. Forget welfare reform. Forget Ardoyne and flags. These are all distractions.
There may be some collapse of the current arrangments, or engineered half-crisis, but at some point the parties will return to something very similar to what’s in place today. Why? Because there is no alternative. Stormont is the only show in town.
This has been brought home to the DUP with brutal clarity following the Scottish vote. England has risen up and demanded parity of esteem. That means the votes of Northern Ireland’s MPs are worth nothing to an incoming Westminster government. It’s a key shift which I wrote about in this week’s Sunday Business Post (below). It strengthens Peter Robinson’s hand should he wish to deal – a rival power base at Westminster no longer exists. Now it’s over to Sinn Fein to see if they’re ready to negotiate.
Scotland says No! That has a nice ring to it for unionists in Northern Ireland. But what does it mean?
This is the result they wanted. It’s a win for the union by a fairly decent margin. But it was secured with the promise of extra powers for Holyrood that have huge implications for Stormont and may change the very nature of unionism itself.
First Minister Peter Robinson wasted no time on Friday before placing a call to his Welsh counterpart Carwyn Jones. There was a time, particularly under the leadership of the late Ian Paisley, that Alex Salmond would have been the friendly ally. But in the aftermath of the independence debate with a scramble for devolved powers across the UK now underway it seems Wales is the only strategic partner Northern Ireland can find.
The big idea for transforming Northern Ireland’s economy – backed by all the parties since 2007 – has been devolving power over corporation tax. This would allow the North to compete with the South for inward investment and grow indigenous companies by incentivising growth.
The practicalities aren’t easy – EU law prohibits tax incentives that would effectively be a double subsidy, so losses to the UK Treasury resulting from the tax change have to be repaid via deductions from Stormont’s budget – but the estimated £3-400 million annual price tag was thought worthwhile.
However plans to devolve the tax powers – heavily backed by former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson – were shelved whenever Alex Salmond began to warn he would make an issue of such unfair treatment for Scotland in the forthcoming referendum campaign.
Now everything’s up for negotiation, the main UK parties have made a solemn vow to devolve maximum power to Scotland and it’s not just the Northern Irish who are clamouring to be heard.
English MPs, of all parties, are in open revolt. One of David Cameron’s own ministers, Claire Perry, warned of handing out “financial party bags” to Alex Salmond. A big problem for the English is that it appears Scotland is being offered a continuation of current funding levels combined with extra tax powers.
Writing in her local paper, the Conservative Minister said: “If there is a proposal to allow devolution of local taxation, as well maintaining the current level of funding as a dollop from the UK Parliament, then that can hardly be equitable for those of us in all other areas in the non-Scottish Union.”
In his post-referendum speech on the steps of Downing Street, David Cameron re-iterated his pledge to stick to his pledge for Scotland but also ensure a fair deal for England too.
“I’ve long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We’ve heard the voice of Scotland, but now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws, the so-called West Lothian question, requires a decisive answer,” he said.
It may require a decisive answer, but it’s a question that’s been lurking unanswered in British politics for more than a generation. Now David Cameron seems to want a quick fix – a blueprint is expected before the general election next year.
What it means is that the union, though safe, faces its most profound change in its history. This “family of nations” has maintained a settled system where the clear dominance of England is disguised by the vagueness of Great Britain.
The UK is proud of its unwritten constitution – only fussy Europeans like to have things like that nailed down in a document. Much better, the theory has gone, to muddle through and literally make it up as you go along.
However the price of a Scottish “No” is that the vagueness will no longer do. Not for Scotland. Not for England. As for Wales and Northern Ireland? Well, they can take what’s given to them.
The union, as unionists have known it, is disappearing before their eyes. Forget Scottish nationalism, it’s English nationalism and English priorities which will drive this debate as David Cameron tries desperately to secure his own leadership of the Conservative Party and steer the ship towards an election victory where the votes that matter are English votes.
In that context, unionists in Northern Ireland may not feel as isolated or betrayed as they might have done had Scotland voted Yes. But they will begin to feel a lot less relevant and a lot less powerful.
One of the calculations Peter Robinson will have been making in recent times is the potential for his MPs to hold the balance of power at Westminster. We know David Cameron entertained them to tea at Downing Street.
But in an English parliament for English people their Ulster votes will be useless. They’ve gone from being potential power-brokers of a United Kingdom government to political non-entities overnight. David Cameron no longer needs to sup tea with Peter Robinson, it’s Nigel Farage who might expect an invitation.
So, Northern Ireland’s unionist First Minister must do his utmost, along with allies where he finds them, to secure the best deal possible for Northern Ireland in the negotiations that now begin. Carwyn Jones in Wales is definitely worth talking to. But so too is Martin McGuinness in his office down the corridor at Stormont.
The challenge for unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland is to face the fact that they’re stuck with each other, nobody else wants or needs them, and to get down to work on behalf of the people that elected them
(this piece first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on Sunday 21st September 2014)