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Artillery Row

Four countries in none

Devolution during a pandemic does no good for the patient Union

If you’d told me back in January after we finally left the EU that somehow I’d ever pine for the days of wall-to-wall Brexit coverage, I would not have believed you. But here we are. At home, believing it.

In the media as in so many other spheres, Covid-19 has driven all before it. Thus, the current EU negotiations over the shape of our future relationship with the bloc are receiving a fraction of the coverage afforded to the dramatic but fairly straightforward stand-offs of 2019.

But behind the scenes, the clock is ticking. If the Government chooses not to seek an extension, the transition period will run out at the end of the year. Should we ‘crash out’ and end up with substantial trade barriers between Britain and the European Union, this could have severe consequences for Northern Ireland.

Under the terms of the so-called ‘Irish Protocol’, the United Kingdom is obliged to erect and enforce an EU customs border in the Irish Sea, even though the Province remains formally part of the British customs territory. The harder our break from the status quo, the more tangible this border will be.

Boris Johnson, having campaigned for the Conservative leadership arguing that no right-minded Prime Minister could possibly agree to such a thing, has spent the time since signalling to aggrieved unionists that all will be well. This has understandably disconcerted Brussels, which is pressing Britain to set out in detail how it will honour its obligations under the Protocol.

Unless the Prime Minister intends to swallow Brussels’ terms for the sake of avoiding an extension – and it would certainly be in keeping with his conduct on the Backstop to do so – 

– it seems almost certain that we shall soon have internal trade barriers baked into the architecture of the UK.

But that might not leave Ulster’s position as anomalous as we might suppose – for all of a sudden, hard borders are springing up across the mainland too.

Following the inevitable breakdown of the so-called ‘Four Nations’ approach to containing Covid-19, lockdown rules between Wales, Scotland, and England have fallen out of alignment. Nationalists in Wales have seized their chance and portrayed the new reality as anti-English movement restrictions. The SNP are not far behind: despite Police Scotland repeatedly shooting down suggestions that they will patrol the border, at least one Nationalist MP has called for just such a move.

Devolution has advanced far beyond the intentions of its architects

It would be easy to heap blame on Johnson for this. In his statement on Sunday he claimed to have “consulted across the political spectrum, across all four nations of the UK”, but devolved leaders claim to have read about his policy shift in the newspapers. 

But in truth this new threat to the integrity to the United Kingdom, like the Irish Protocol before it, flows not from the inattention of a single Prime Minister but the cumulative uninterest of perhaps every holder of the office since John Major.

Time and again, powers have been ceded to the devolved administrations with no thought given to their impact on the long-term cohesion of the Union, in accordance with a dogmatic insistence that entire portfolios are either devolved or not. The idea that the central government might have a legitimate stake in specific powers even in areas generally devolved – one which was in fact maintained in part by our EU membership – has been abandoned.

Meanwhile high-profile devolutionaries such as Gordon Brown continue to insist that even where UK-wide policy is needed, it should be set not by UK-wide institutions but by multilateral negotiations between London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast, despite mounting evidence that there is nothing like enough good faith or common goals for this to work.

All of this has gone largely unresisted because the constitution appeared to many as a dry, procedural question. Much of what might have been the devosceptic electorate, especially in Wales, has been content to put the Assembly out of their minds and stay at home. Shorn of this constituency, and faced with a fiercely-policed consensus at the political level, politicians have kept their heads down.

Could Covid-19 be a turning point in the constitutional struggle? Perhaps. The prospect of hard borders on Great Britain ought to awaken mainland unionists to the extraordinary extent to which devolution has advanced far beyond the intentions of its architects, and give them greater understanding too of the anger Ulster’s unionists justly feel at having a similar border within the UK foisted on them.

Of course, borders aren’t the only area where the devocrat reflex towards differentiation has created problems. Tory MPs’ postbags are reportedly groaning under the weight of complaints about the unnecessary delays and screw-ups in implementing things such as priority supermarket deliveries or NHS volunteering caused by refusal to sign on to Westminster programmes.

But they are an extraordinarily visible and symbolically potent reminder of where ‘Four Nations’ thinking leads, and how devolution has handed nationalists the tools to start picking this country apart. 

If even this can’t spur unionist voters and politicians to put their heads above the parapet, then perhaps nothing will.

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