Killing two political birds with one stone: Resolving the UK’s unfinished devolution and the Irish border questions (Robert Henderson)
Brexit provides a wonderful opportunity to deal simultaneously with two major political difficulties. These are the unbalanced devolution arrangements in the UK and what is to be done about the
Relationship between the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and the UK after Brexit. Both problems could be solved by the RoI leaving the EU at the same time as the UK and forming a federation with the UK.
The unfinished business of UK devolution
Three of the four home countries – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have each been granted elected assemblies or parliaments . From these are formed devolved governments which administer increasingly significant powers such as the control of policing, education and the NHS. The personnel of the devolved governments and assemblies/parliaments have by their words and actions made it clear that do not think of the national interest of the UK but of what is best for their particular home country.
The fourth home country England has neither an assembly nor a government and consequently no body of politicians to speak for England and to look after her interests. A procedure to have only MPs sitting for English seats voting on English only legislation (English votes for English laws or EVEL for short) began a trial in 2015, but it has few teeth because it is difficult to disentangle what is English only legislation, not least because MPs for seats outside of England argue that any Bill dealing solely with English matters has financial implications for the rest of the UK and , consequently, is not an England only Bill. Nor does EVEL allow English MPs to initiate English only legislation. Most importantly England , unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is left without any national political representatives to concentrate on purely English domestic matters.
The House of Lords review of its first year in operation makes EVEL’s limitations clear:
The EVEL procedures introduced by the Government address, to some extent, the West Lothian Question. They provide a double-veto, meaning that legislation or provisions in bills affecting only England (or in some cases, England and Wales, or England and Wales and Northern Ireland), can only be passed by the House of Commons with the support of both a majority of MPs overall, and of MPs from the nations directly affected by the legislation.
Yet English MPs’ ability to enact and amend legislation does not mirror their capacity, under EVEL, to resist legislative changes. The capacity of English MPs to pursue a distinct legislative agenda for England in respect of matters that are devolved elsewhere does not equate to the broader capacity of devolved legislatures to pursue a distinct agenda on matters that are devolved to them
Not content with denying England a parliament and government of her own the UK government has made strenuous efforts to Balkanise England by forcing elected mayors on cities and the devolution of considerable powers to local authority areas built around cities with Manchester in the vanguard of this development. The ostensible idea of this Balkanisation is to pretend that an English parliament and government is not necessary because devolution is being delivered on a regional basis to England: its covert intention is to ensure that England cannot act as a political entity in its own right and have its representatives asking awkward questions such as why are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receiving so much more per capita from the Treasury each year than England receives.( The latest figures are: Scotland £10,536 per person, Northern Ireland, £10,983 per person, Wales £9,996 per person, England £8,816 per person).
To balance the devolution settlement in the UK England needs a parliament and a government, not just to give her parity with the other home countries, but to prevent the Balkanisation of England. This could be done simply and without great expense by returning the Westminster Parliament to what it was originally, the English Parliament. It could also function as the federal Parliament when that was required to convene . Hence, no new parliament building would be required. Members of the Federal Parliament would be the elected representatives of the devolved assemblies of the four Home Countries and what is now the RoI.
The Republic of Ireland
Should the RoI decide to remain as a member of the EU she risks a hard border this would potentially mean an end to the free movement between the UK and the RoI and the RoI having to deal with EU imposed tariffs on imports from the UK and UK reciprocal tariffs on goods exported by the RoI to the UK. It is important to understand that a “hard” border would not just be that between the RoI and Northern Ireland, but between the RoI and the whole of the UK.
The land border between the RoI and Northern Ireland creates two potential dangers for the UK. It could operate as a back door for illegal immigrants to enter the UK and promote the smuggling of goods. At present the UK government is attempting to foist onto the British public a nonsense which says that there will be no need of a “hard” border between the RoI and Northern Ireland to prevent illegal immigration. Two lines of argument are employed to justify this. First, that it can be controlled by greater technological surveillance and stricter checks on employers, foreign benefit claimants and landlords. Second, it is claimed that the fact that the UK is no longer an EU member will mean that the UK will be much less attractive to people in the EU as a place to migrate to because they will not be able to get jobs or benefits.
This shows either a shocking naivety or cynicism of a high order. The idea that people would not be able to gain employment simply because they are EU citizens ignores the fact that many illegal migrants from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) already do this. Moreover, even immigrants here legally have an incentive to work in the black market because they can avoid tax.
As for not paying benefits, how would the authorities distinguish between the millions from the EU already in the UK who are almost certain to have the right to remain, and any new EU migrants? It would be nigh on impossible. It is remarkably easy to get a National Insurance number issued in the UK and even if employers had stricter duties placed upon them not to employ EU citizens without a work permit or visa, there are plenty of employers who would be willing to employ those they knew were illegal because they are cheaper and more easily controlled and sacked than British workers or theillegal employer (this is a common thing with gangmasters) is an immigrant and makes a point of only employing other immigrants from his or her own country. Once employed and with a National Insurance number they could claim in work benefits readily enough and probably out of work benefits too because there is not the massive resources of manpower which would be required to do the necessary checks on whether they were eligible.
Whatever is said now there could not in practice be an open border with the UK. Even if in the immediate post-Brexit period there continued the present agreement between the UK and the RoI of free movement, and this is what Theresa May is proposing, huge numbers of immigrants to the UK coming via the the RoI would create uproar amongst a British public who felt cheated that a hard border between the RoI and Northern Ireland would have to be created.
But even without the migrant question the idea that no “hard” border will be necessary could be sunk if the EU or the UK imposes tariffs or quotas on goods. The ex-EU Commissioner Peter Sutherland has pointed this out forcefully:
“We have been told by a number of Conservative Party spokespeople that Britain will leave the common customs area of the EU.
“If this is true, the customs union, which relates to sharing a common external tariff of the EU, will have to be maintained by all other EU countries with the UK following its withdrawal. Goods will have to be checked at borders.”
While the RoI Foreign Secretary Charlie Flanagan has said a hard Brexit would be unworkable for Ireland.
The RoI would have the worry that if they remained in the EU they could find themselves suddenly saddled with tariffs. If a genuine Brexit is achieved by the UK then it is possible that either the EU will place tariffs or quotas on UK goods and the UK responds in kind or that this will happen because no agreement can be reached and the UK leaves the EU and trades under WTO rules. This would be more than an inconvenience for the RoI because she has very substantial economic ties to the UK.
All these difficulties with devolution and the RoI border would dissolve with the creation of a truly federal state comprised of England, Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland and what is now the RoI. Such a federation would need to have full home rule. The issues which would be left to the federal level would be important but few: defence, foreign affairs, control of coastal waters, customs, management of the currency and immigration. This would not mean that the policy areas reserved to the constituent countries’ parliaments would not be brought to the federal level without the agreement of the constituent countries. Large infrastructure projects such as roads and railways covering two or more devolved jurisdictions would be a good example of the type of issue which might be dealt with at the federal level.
Such a federation would have a good start for England, Scotland, Wales are all undisputed territories with no border disputes or awkward enclaves stuck in the middle of another nation’s territory. The Irish situation is more complicated, but if the entirety of Ireland was in the new federation that would probably take much of the sting which is left out of the sectarian divide . Moreover, the RoI and Northern Ireland would still each have a separate identity and a devolved political class and institutions directly responsible to their respective populations. One of the reasons for the great stability of Great Britain (that is, England, Scotland and Wales) over the centuries is the fact that each nation had its own territory. That would continue under the federation I propose.
Why would the RoI join such a federation?
Why would the RoI wish to give up her independence? They reality is that while she is part of the EU the RoI is not independent. To begin withshe has no control of her currency because the RoI is part of the Eurozone. To that can be added the huge amount of control through EU regulations and directives., interferences with national sovereignty which a small state such as the RoI has little influence over because of the EU’s qualified majority voting. Moreover, the way the EU is going member states are likely to have less and less national autonomy as the federalist project proceeds. (An alternative plausible and damaging scenario is that the EU collapses within the next ten years , most probably through the other states wanting to follow the UK’s example and leave the EU or simply because the Euro crashes. This would leave the RoI on her own. )
For a long time the RoI benefitted greatly from being a net beneficiary with more money coming to the RoI than the RoI sent to Brussels. That is changing rapidly. The net payment the ROI receives from the EU no longer huge in relation to the size of her economy (GDP €214.623 billion in 2015). The ROI’s financial delings with the EU in 2015 were:
Total EU spending in Ireland: € 2.009 billion
Total EU spending as % of Irish gross national income (GNI): 1.10 %
Total Irish contribution to the EU budget: € 1.558 billion
Irish contribution to the EU budget as % of its GNI: 0.86 %
It is probable that within the next few years the RoI will become a regular net contributor to the EU budget.
As for RoI exports , those to the EU have declined by over the past year while RoI exports to countries outside the EU grew.
Set against a background of declining monetary benefit, weakening exports to the EU and increasing uncertainty as to where the EU is going the considerable advantages the RoI would gain in addition to removing the problems a border between the RoI and Northern Ireland create begin to look decidedly attractive.
The RoI would be part of a political unit which was a significant military power, was a permanent member of the UN Security Council and held high positions in powerful international bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank.
The fact that the RoI is part of the Eurozone need not be a great problem, because the RoI could immediately switch to the Pound Sterling as their currency. This would entail far less upheaval than the RoI would experience if they remained in the EU and had to either leave the Euro of their own accord because it was too damaging or simply find themselves without a currency because the Euro had collapsed.
Nonetheless I can see what an emotional wrench such a course would be for any country which thinks of itself as a sovereign state. That this is largely a sham whilst the RoI is within the EU (the same applies to the UK until Brexit is achieved) is neither here nor there if people think of a country as sovereign. Moreover, Ireland as a whole has a long and fraught history with the British mainland. Nonetheless , the RoI would have full control of her domestic matters and would actually have more control in many areas because there is so much that the EU now controls which would be left to each part of the federation.
There is also the greater question of what the world will be like in ten or twenty years. Western Europe including the British Isles has enjoyed a remarkably long period of peace. That may well not last. The threat may not come from European powers but new superpowers such as China and India. This is not fanciful. There are approximately 7 billion people in the world at present of whom at a most generous estimate only one billion live in the West. It is overly sanguine to imagine that such huge blocks of humanity living outside the West will remain forever without expansionist tendencies, tendencies which could extend to Europe or even North America. China in particular is engaged in quasi-empire building throughout the developing world. In addition, there are strong signs that the world is casting globalisation aside with protectionist sympathies growing. That makes the RoI’s substantial trade with the UK potentially even more important than it is now for we are likely to enter a world in which countries look to their own advantage. . Finally, there is the still largely ignored by politicians threat of catastrophic unemployment which is almost certain to come in the next decade or two from the huge advances in robotics and Artificial Intelligence which will allow most existing jobs and, most importantly, most new jobs which arise, to be done without human involvement .
In such an uncertain world being part of a serious military, diplomatic and economic power could be much to the RoI’s 4.5 million population’s advantage