Stormont's structural flaws

Tommy McKearney argues that London's de facto power makes the Stormont Assembly little more than a glorified county council

HAVING SPENT years refusing to recognise courts, parliaments and on occasions reality itself, it is hardly surprising that some Irish republicans have difficulty differentiating between the concepts de jure and de facto.

Compounding this effect is the use of an entire lexicon that refuses to acknowledge Britain's influence over the six counties. Terms such as Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, the House of Commons, the government, the prime minister are either rejected outright or qualified in phrases such as the British government or the British prime minister; indicating that these institutions do not belong to us.

There is a good and logical reason why republicans would be unwilling to use their opponents' vocabulary. The British did not introduce terms such as 'the mainland' and 'the minority' by accident and using these phrases tends to create its own political reality through a tacit acceptance of London's demand for de jure recognition of its rule in Ireland.

The downside of this situation is that Irish republicans are sometimes slow to realise that refusing to recognise Britain's legal right to govern the north does not in itself prevent the Westminster writ running de facto in the area.

This unpalatable fact becomes pertinent whenever a Stormont assembly is being considered because there is often a tendency to overlook the fact that what is at issue is at best a devolved administration and not a sovereign parliament.

The six counties are, de facto, governed from London as an integral part of the United Kingdom, with all the restrictions that entails for regional assemblies.

In practice, it means that deprived of the power to tax and spend, a regional parliament can only help administer (but not significantly change) what is decided in the British House of Commons.

Faced with such reality, a regional assembly might theoretically combine in defiance of the central government. It would, though, be a fraught strategy and one requiring the overwhelming and unanimous support of all members of that assembly.

There is no realistic prospect of this happening at Stormont in the foreseeable future, because it would undoubtedly undermine the Union and thus fail to gain unionist backing.

Structurally designed without meaningful power and containing a majority temperamentally incapable of challenging the dominant authority in London, there is little prospect that if an executive were to be agreed by the Stormont assembly that it would prove to be anything other than a limp, rubberstamp for legislation emanating from Westminster.

This does not mean of course that there wouldn't be frequent bouts of intemperate behaviour and angry exchanges as the different groups traded insults or played to the gallery, but then that also happens in the parish council without any great impact on the price of bread.

Paradoxically, there would too, be glowing reports of how well the opposing politicians were cooperating on various committees and working groups and how hard working and efficient the ministers were.

Would a functioning assembly, though, prevent the British government introducing its proposed raft of anti-working class measures such as steep rises in domestic rates, water charges, education cuts and public administration restructuring of health services?

The real question here is whether the assembly has the power to do so and the blunt answer is that it does not. Remember the last time the assembly sat? Sinn Fein minister for health and social services Bairbre de Brun presided over the closure of hospitals and Ulster Unionist Party minister for enterprise, trade and investment watched as Harland and Wolf was closed. Neither wanted these closures to happen but could do nothing to prevent them.

A British government might permit the Stormont assembly make a few cosmetic changes to legislation by way of encouraging it to be of good behaviour but nothing more than that. A new power-sharing Stormont will not be able to reduce the rate of corporation tax, introduce the Euro, create full-employment, control the police or overturn privatisation policies.

What power is left means a Stormont Assembly is no more than a glorified county council. As such it may well have some uses but acting as vehicle for creating of radical politics will not be one of them.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-09-21 06:15:41.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2006 Tommy McKearney