Anna Mercer looks at why inter-parliamentary working in Northern Ireland has been, and remains, a challenge.
The IWA’s report, ‘Missing Links: Past, present and future inter-parliamentary relations in the devolved UK’ is published on Tuesday, 22 September 2020. Secure your tickets to the online panel discussion at the launch here.
Twenty-two years since devolution saw the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the past two decades have seen suspensions, walk outs, a “brawl in the hall” and three subsequent deals in response to the never dull politics of the region.
Although bruised and somewhat fraying around the edges, the agreement that ended 30 years of conflict has survived, and the most recent deal promises a New Decade, New Approach to end a three year suspension.
Unlike other regions of the UK, devolution to a power-sharing Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland was the product of a peace agreement that initially brought politicians from opposing constitutional outlooks together in a somewhat awkward mandatory coalition government.
To understand the challenges and opportunities for inter-parliamentary relations from a Northern Ireland perspective, context is key and can be defined by two key features: the opposing constitutional outlooks that define the politics of the region, and the stop-start approach to government that has frustrated and limited policy development in other policy areas which would benefit from an inter-parliamentary approach.
With the largest nationalist party adopting an abstentionist policy to Westminster, Sinn Féin’s fundamental rejection of the mother parliament means they have limited interest in engagement with other UK jurisdictions.
However, given the SNP Government in Scotland’s aspiration to independence, and the more autonomous path they have carved, there are areas of mutual interest and learning that could inspire increased co-operation.
Last week, the Sinn Féin Finance Minister, alongside his Scottish and Welsh counterparts, released a joint statement expressing their concern at the provisions within the Internal Market Bill and the impact they would have on devolved matters, including the allocation of funding to devolved matters.
Similarly, SDLP Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon also joined forces with Scottish and Welsh Ministers in challenging the implications of the bill on the regions, and so whilst politically, the ambition for Nationalist Ministers lies outside of the UK structures, they have clearly identified the opportunity to work with colleagues when there is mutual benefit, through informal channels rather than formal institutional structures.
“For nationalists and others, the benefits of learning from best practice in public policy from colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales merits stronger working relationships.”
On the other side of the house, the challenge for unionist parties has been to “sell” the benefits of the union, and so there is perhaps greater scope for cross-jurisdictional working. In 2019, former DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly established an All Party Parliamentary Group on Strengthening the Union which sought to examine the case for and the challenges facing unionism, however since losing her seat, the group has not been reconstituted.
But perhaps rather than focusing on the heart of the union as Westminster, strengthening interparliamentary relations between the devolved regions would enable a practical and positive means to achieving a stronger brand of unionism through recognising the diversity of the four regions of the UK and embracing the opportunity of this, rather than on what is often a more homogenous, localised and sometimes unflattering version of Britishness in Northern Ireland.
Another challenge to inter-parliamentary relations for Northern Ireland has been the stop-start approach that has characterised the Executive, preventing progress on more normalised policy areas that would benefit from closer inter-parliamentary relations.
That is not to say that it hasn’t happened informally, and the success of building a Programme for Government based around achieving wellbeing outcomes was in part due to the success of this model in Scotland and Wales.
However, much of the driving of this comes from external lobbying rather than through existing inter-parliamentary structures, and so most engagement of this nature is done informally through study visits and ad hoc engagement with departments and officials.
“For unionist politicians, the clear benefits of seeing the UK institutions working together in action is surely unionism in motion.”
One of the biggest challenges for Northern Ireland in playing a greater role in the wider politics of the UK may be due to a tendency to look inwards, and given the problems and challenges that have frustrated progress for the past two decades, there hasn’t been a lot of spare capacity to deliver anything above and beyond the day to day and crisis management.
This has never been more apparent than in the age of Brexit, from the referendum in 2016 which saw a majority of people in Northern Ireland vote to remain in the EU. Yet with the Assembly absent between 2017-2020, and indeed without an agreed position from the Executive, an opportunity to engage in a regional approach with Scotland and Wales was missed for Northern Ireland.
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So why do inter-parliamentary relations remain a challenge? With politicians fixated on vote-winning policies and positioning against their opponents, perhaps the wider strategic piece remains the domain of academics and constitutional experts; after all, there are few votes to be won in Wales for the MLAs of East Antrim!
Strategic engagement requires space and support, and critically a link to how it can appeal to the needs of time-poor politicians, and whilst the case for enhanced inter-parliamentary relations can be made, closer alignment with politics is needed to engage the politicians themselves.
In Northern Ireland, for unionist politicians, the clear benefits of seeing the UK institutions working together in action is surely unionism in motion, whilst for nationalists and others, the benefits of learning from best practice in public policy from colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales merits stronger working relationships.
Until we address the gap between politics and institutions, then excuses will remain for why we don’t do more. However the practical outworkings of our exit from the EU demand common frameworks in a range of policy areas, and a mutual suspicion across the devolved regions of the centralisation of power at Westminster can unite even the most ardent unionist politicians, who, for the most part, cherish devolution.
Perhaps the opportunities – and the threats – can represent the first step in a more practical and successful partnership for inter-parliamentary relations.
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