Never allow separatists to make devolved areas into No-Go ghettoes for the UK Government

Never allow separatists to make devolved areas into No-Go ghettoes for the UK Government

by Owen Polley
article from Thursday 18, March, 2021

WHEREVER SEPARATISM EXISTS in the UK, you can be sure that it will be nourished by a steady diet of grievance. As far as nationalists are concerned, the authorities at Westminster can do nothing right, even when they’re investing vast sums of tax-payers’ money in the many devolved areas and contributing positively to their future.

Last week, the government held a meeting with ministers in Northern Ireland to discuss its plans to open an office for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in Belfast. A small number of civil servants will use the facility to oversee UK-wide investments made by Westminster, as part of the budget that Rishi Sunak unveiled some weeks ago. 

An uncomplicatedly good news story then? 

Not according to Nichola Mallon, Northern Ireland’s minister for infrastructure and a member of the nationalist SDLP. She delivered an aggressive and graceless statement following the meeting, accusing the government of “dismantling devolution and removing power from local people”. 

“I will not be standing silently by while Boris Johnson tries to undermine power-sharing here because he’s obsessed with the Scottish election,” she continued

How dare government officials come over to Belfast, with their threats to spend money and actually get something done? Don’t they know that there is already an executive here that has singularly failed to deliver improvements to infrastructure and can turn any decision, whether it affects road, rail or housing, into a bitter sectarian stalemate?

The irony is that the SDLP, along with Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party, has for months been lobbying for an EU office in Northern Ireland. They oppose the presence of a UK government department, on the basis that the Tories have only ‘3,000 votes’ in Ulster, but EU officials from Brussels, who haven’t a single vote between them, why, they are most welcome. 

It’s some pretty basic irony, but still worth a chuckle. Unfortunately, though, it is not an aberration.  

The SDLP, while it represents constitutional nationalism, has adopted a particularly aggressive tone lately, perhaps to compete with Sinn Fein’s viciously anti-British rhetoric, or because it has bought into the bogus notion that a border poll on Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is coming in the next few years.

The mention of the Scottish election is instructive, because Mallon is fabricating grievances from flimsy material just like the SNP has done so successfully in Scotland. Indeed, the government wants to make itself more visible, and emphasise its role in investing across the regions, to strengthen the Union in the face of these tactics.

While officials met ministers to talk about the MHCLG office in Belfast, the prime minister unveiled plans for a “trade and investment hub” in Edinburgh. The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, suggested that MPs could sit at the devolved administrations in Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff Bay, for two weeks during September, as a way of bringing government “closer to the people”. 

There are legitimate questions about how this would work, given that none of the devolved chambers are big enough to accommodate anything like a full cohort of MPs. Just like their separatist counterparts in Northern Ireland, though, the SNP went straight to its sole strength and took offence, depicting the proposal as an assault on devolution. “Having already taken powers and funding from the Scottish parliament,” the party’s deputy leader ranted, “the Tories have confirmed that they want to take over the parliament building as well.” 

The idea the Scottish Parliament will be under threat if MPs use the facilities at Holyrood for a couple of weeks is laughable. It’s almost as ridiculous as the notion that the government has no right to supervise the way its money is spent in Northern Ireland. Yet, it’s easy and politically profitable for separatist politicians to stir up hatred, resentment and paranoid fantasies among people who are already inclined to view any national initiative with suspicion.

In Northern Ireland, these divisive tactics are so jarring precisely because the executive’s entire history is one of inaction. The province’s services remain largely un-reformed after more than two decades of devolution. This is particularly glaring in the health service, where a series of reviews have recommended broadly similar changes that have never been implemented. Whenever it becomes time to do something, the incumbent health minister simply commissions a new report. Similarly, badly needed infrastructure projects become stuck, with ministers preferring to announce short-term public spending rather than investing in longer term initiatives. 

At Stormont, just like at Holyrood, ministers tend to claim credit for benefits that actually flow from our place in the United Kingdom, while blaming their own failures on Westminster. It’s one of the long-standing problems with devolution, which grants power without responsibility, and makes the national government into a convenient scapegoat for inept regional politicians.

That’s just one of the reasons why the government should face down separatist aggression and ensure its presence is felt across the whole country – physically and not just financially.

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Owen Polley is a writer and commentator from Northern Ireland, who contributes to many newspapers, websites and magazines. He co-presents the podcast, PoliticalOD @3000Versts

Photo of Nichola Mallon by Ardfern - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38981448  Photo of bricked-up and abandoned town houses in a run-down city street in Belfast by Stephen from Adobe Stock 

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