Lucius Winslow is an MA Politics student at Queen’s University Belfast. He also takes an interest in history, and has written several novels.
In light of the decision to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall – a decision almost designed to irritate Unionists of all shades –the pro-British segment of the community has been experiencing one of its traditional upswings in anxiety.
Northern Irish Unionist pessimism has been well documented. Whether sifting through census data or looking at the relative party political strengths, the average Unionist looks into the constitutional tea leaves and despairs. And then there’s the gut-churning angst of vague fears; the depression-inducing past-time of imagining a united Ireland. Yet in large part this almost fatalistic anxiety looks unfounded, or at least overdone.
This post is not about to labour the by-now hackneyed point about the increasing willingness of Catholics to embrace a British future (significant, almost to the point of being decisive, though that is). Instead it seems a pleasant exercise – for once – to look at Northern Ireland’s parliamentary arrangements.
Speaking of institutions in general, the late Milton Friedman noted that ‘there is enormous inertia – a tyranny of the status quo – in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis – factual or perceived – produces real change.’
This natural governmental conservatism would seem to be enhanced by constitutional boosters in the Ulster case, courtesy of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements. It would be supremely anodyne to enumerate the consociational architecture in detail here, not least because most readers will be familiar with it, so a simple paragraph will do.
Stormont now operates a somewhat-convoluted compulsory power-sharing government, with the need for supermajority to pass contentious legislation. This ‘cross-community vote’ requires a majority of both Unionists and Nationalists to pass. This has of course been a source of annoyance to many in Unionist political circles, frustrated as they are at the ability of the minority to hold up reform and/or legislation.
Yet it is this tedious (and now rather abused) piece of parliamentary procedure which acts as a shield for the Union. Should the day ever come – and I can’t see it happening for a long time, if ever – when the Unionists become the minority, then they can rest assured that they will maintain a veto, frustrating the separatist agenda of their opponents.
Although it is true that the Good Friday Agreement vests the constitutional referendum powers in the Secretary of State rather than the Assembly, it seems more likely than not that the Secretary of State’s decision to call a referendum would probably follow an Assembly vote, rather than vice versa. This would most likely be the case for three main reasons; an British Establishment dislike of referenda in general; an unwillingness to potentially destabilise the Province by formulating events rather than merely reacting to them; and a Westminster sympathy with Unionism, varying from outright sympathy from the Conservatives, to the highly-diluted form that exists in the Labour Party.
The result is that Stormont as currently constituted in effect gives a latent veto to those fighting for the status quo, in the unlikely event that they would need it. Now given that Northern Ireland has maintained its place in the Union after a thirty year crisis, it seems that Milton’s tyranny (which we might favourably rephrase enlightened absolutism in this case…) is pretty secure.
The flag may have come down from prominence in Donegall Square, but short of some unforeseen catastrophe, or the local Unionist establishment going zany, it seems a safe bet that the Province will be anchored in the UK for a long time to come, courtesy among other things of the labyrinthine nature of Stormont.Share on Facebook