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To save the Union is to save devolution

24 September 2020

By Austyn Close

Devolved matters have always been a site of controversy across the entirety of the UK. The delicate make-up of the union makes any flashpoint a red flag to a bull across the statelets. 

Much has been discussed about Northern Ireland in the past four years since the EU referendum. During my lifetime, my homeland has never been a greater centre of attention than before all the talk of hard borders and the DUP’s Confidence and Supply Agreement with Teresa May’s last Conservative government.

Now, the UK’s controversial Internal Market Bill fires another shot at the fragile quasi-independence that each of the devolved territories enjoys and holds dearly.  

A threat to devolution is a threat to the way we’ve lived our lives in Northern Ireland over the last 20 year, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – a sacred treaty that upholds power sharing between two of Northern Ireland’s hegemonic political communities; Unionists and Nationalists. 

Like all Northern Irish political matters, the issue of the Internal Market Bill has become yet another battleground for debate amongst the Stormont Executive and Assembly. First Minister, Arlene Foster, cautiously welcomed the prospect of the Bill changing the Northern Irish Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement while others have universally called for its dismissal on legal grounds. 

The Bill made cause for rejoicing in the Unionist community (primarily within the DUP). It would act as a readjustment to the agreed Protocol reached last year, ensuring that Northern Ireland was kept within the UK trading structures and not within the EU Single Market. Other NI parties – Sinn Féin, SDLP, the Green Party and Alliance – wrote to No. 10 in a joint letter to express their concerns over the removal of customs checks on goods coming into and out of Northern Ireland in this way, citing that its impact on the Northern Irish people’s way of life would be “devastating”. 

The issue of whether the Bill does undermine devolution across the UK and not just Northern Ireland is important, but beyond the detail and the reality of the situation come January 2021, there is a vital concern over trust in central government, Whitehall, No. 10 and moreover, the Prime Minister. 

This new flashpoint in the ongoing chronicles of devolution is yet another stab at the mutual respect and trust established between administrations. Like all modern nations, and those with federal arrangements, it’s important to uphold commitments and preserve the integrity of those spaces where there are specific and limited powers in place. 

As the NI Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, shared on Twitter: “Devolution deserves respect, not contempt”.