Contradictory Unionism: the impact of Stormont on British devolution debates

For more than half a century (1921-72), the existence of a devolved parliament in Northern Ireland created a contradiction at the heart of Unionist thought: while proponents of ‘the Union’ championed legislative autonomy in one part of the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland), they simultaneously denigrated moves towards devolution in Scotland and Wales on the basis that it might constitute a ‘slippery slope’ towards full ‘separation’. In a new blog from our Making Sense of Parliaments conference Dr David Torrance sheds light on a neglected aspect of broader debates about parliamentary devolution in the UK.

On 7 June 1921, the ‘Northern Parliament’ – or ‘Parliament of Northern Ireland’ to give it its fuller title – met for the first time at Belfast City Hall. Its existence had not been guaranteed, nor had it been desired by either side of the Irish divide: Nationalists resented any attempt to ‘partition’ the 32 counties, while Unionists had spent the last four decades railing against the imposition of ‘Home Rule’.

But at the last moment, Unionists learned to stop worrying and learn to love a Home Rule parliament in six of Ulster’s nine counties, while Conservatives at Westminster contented themselves that this ‘experiment’ in devolution was the only way to resolve the long-standing Irish Question. So, there it stood in Belfast’s civic centre, the constitutional residue of a more holistic plan to federalize the United Kingdom which had been in circulation since the Liberal split of 1886.

All that survived from a Cabinet committee charged with working out the logistics of a federal scheme was the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and all that survived from that piece of legislation was one of two devolved parliaments envisaged for ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ Ireland. It looked, and essentially was, Westminster in miniature. It had a Prime Minister, Cabinet and House of Commons, as well as a Governor, Privy Council and its own judicial system. The only point of difference was an indirectly-elected Senate which served as the Upper House.

The very existence of a devolved parliament in Belfast naturally changed the nature of constitutional discourse in the British Isles. After 1921, ‘Unionism’ came to mean different things in different parts of the UK. In Northern Ireland, it meant maintaining the fledgling statelet, while in Scotland and Wales it generally stressed ‘administrative’ rather than ‘legislative’ autonomy, whereby civil servants were transferred from Whitehall and housed in the Welsh Board of Health in Cardiff and St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.

This physical manifestation of what’s been called ‘nationalist unionism’, a very British attempt to reconcile two seemingly opposed constitutional traditions, reached its height in the 1930s. At beginning of that turbulent decade, custom-designed parliament buildings took shape at Stormont on the outskirts of Belfast, a defiant statement of Ulster Unionism, its six floors and six entrance pillars representing Northern Ireland’s six counties. A statue of Sir Edward Carson, a Unionist politician who – ironically – had stubbornly resisted devolution of any sort, stands outside.

In Edinburgh, meanwhile, a new purpose-built home for the Scottish Office – the UK government department responsible for Scottish affairs – was intended to represent the Anglo-Scottish Union in bricks and mortar. Its site, on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, was to be visible, elevated (on one side) and, like Stormont, deliberately imposing. Its architect was the modernist Thomas S. Tait, who aimed to create a ‘Scottish Acropolis’, a classical allusion that reflected Unionist intent.

But this ‘nationalist unionism’ only got Unionists so far. While the Ulster variety were secure in their conversion to devolution, their Scottish counterparts found themselves in a less certain position, particularly as various nationalist movements grew in strength. Until the Second World War, these  enjoyed little traction, but when a ‘Scottish Covenant’ campaign caught the public imagination in the late 1940s, Scottish Unionists were compelled to respond.

Members of the Scottish Unionist Party (who took the Conservative whip at Westminster) had impeccably Scottish credentials but also a deep opposition to calls for legislative devolution, which regarded as dangerously radical. Although content to play the ‘Scottish card’ rhetorically and symbolically, administrative devolution was as far as the party was prepared to go. At a meeting of the Scottish Unionist Members Committee (SUMC) in 1946, the ‘Stormont model’ was considered and promptly dismissed on the basis that Scotland could not hope to secure the ‘favourable financial agreement’ that existed in Northern Ireland.

Instead the SUMC resolved to a) extend use of the Scottish Grand Committee at Westminster, b) appoint an additional minister to the Scottish Office, c) ‘upgrade’ the status of civil servants in Scotland, d) further utilize the Upper House in initiating ‘Bills of particular Scottish interest’, and e) determining ‘what further measures, if any, of devolution are desirable’ from Whitehall to St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, by which it meant largely technical measures. These proposals formed the basis of general Scottish Unionist policy for the next few decades.

But a contradiction remained: why was legislative devolution considered essential in one part of the UK (Northern Ireland) but anathema in another (Scotland)? Some Scottish Unionists were conscious of this tension. Glaswegian members of the Scottish Unionist Association, for example, feared that such a caveated rejection of the Stormont solution (that Scotland would not ‘obtain the favourable financial arrangements secured by Northern Ireland’) implied that a ‘Parliament on the lines of the one in Ireland was practicable and desirable’, so long as it was backed up with money from London.

In July 1950, the SUMC even met with members of the Northern Ireland Parliament as part of another inquiry into the Stormont model. Sir Hugh O’Neill, an Ulster Unionist MP at Stormont, gave them an overview of the ‘Ulster system’, doubting whether Scotland would enjoy similar advantages, although another Ulster Unionist MP, Sir Ronald Ross, believed it would actually ‘be advantageous to Northern Ireland for Scotland to follow her example’. Others said the existence of a ‘separate legislature’ enabled the ‘Ulster system’ to make ‘quick administrative decisions’. In December 1950, the then Northern Irish Prime Minister Sir Basil Brooke met representatives of the Scottish Covenant movement in Belfast. ‘[They] are studying the set up here with a view to a similar set up in Scotland,’ he recorded in his diary. ‘I told them that in my view it worked well.’

Still the position of Scottish Unionists would not budge, and therefore Stormont remained a constant – and highly visible – reminder of the logical inconsistency at the core of ‘nationalist unionism’. Having failed to fix the ‘boundary’ of the Irish nation over the past century, Scottish Unionists appeared to consider ‘administrative devolution’ as the ne plus ultra of what the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell had called the ‘progress’ of ‘nationhood’. But then Unionists were virtually guaranteed a majority in the Northern Ireland Parliament, something that would not necessarily be the case were a devolved parliament established in Edinburgh.

The Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs, established by the Conservatives in the early 1950s as another sop to nationalist public opinion in Scotland, took a different approach. Having taken evidence from members of the Northern Ireland Parliament and visited Stormont on a fact-finding trip, it observed in its 1954 report that:

The existing legislative and administrative arrangements in Northern Ireland have come into being as a result of historical causes peculiar to that country [and] however well adapted to conditions there, would not further the special needs and interests of Scotland. In Scotland devolution has taken an indigenous, but different, form due to the preservation following the Treaty of Union of her native institutions founded on her distinctive legal and ecclesiastical systems, and now exemplified by Scotland’s direct representation in the Cabinet. While there may be support for the adoption of a form of devolution more readily apparent, we feel that this would inevitably reduce the prestige and standing of Scotland and her representation in Parliament at Westminster, and would thereby weaken her voice in British and world affairs.

This argument suggested that a Cabinet minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland, possessed more clout and autonomy than the Prime Minister and Parliament of Northern Ireland.

In any case, by 1954 the Scottish Covenant movement had subsided, and when, in the late 1960s, the Scottish National Party became a serious electoral force in Scottish politics for the first time, the stigma surrounding Stormont – its gerrymandering, discrimination and the resulting ‘Troubles’ – meant that Scottish Unionists (which by this point included the Labour Party in Scotland) did not have to justify their inconsistency to the same degree. Besides, in 1968 Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party, had belatedly backed legislative devolution in his ‘Declaration of Perth’. The circle had finally been squared.

Interestingly, the modernizing Prime Minister of Northern Ireland during that period, Terence O’Neill, regarded it as ‘inevitable’ that devolution within the United Kingdom had ‘not run its full course’. He added:

In the long run, I believe that it will be in the interests both of Westminster and of the regions themselves to set up some kind of elective body to which the local planners and executive can be responsible. When this occurs, I also believe that the Northern Ireland experience will be of real interest and value.

O’Neill also took care to note his disapproval of nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales, viewing ‘a measure of regional devolution not as a step to weaken the nation, but as a step to strengthen it’.

The influential Labour MP and political scientist John P. Mackintosh also viewed the Northern Irish precedent positively, arguing that the (Scottish Unionist) ‘notion that an element of devolution must lead to an immediate rush towards total separation’ as ‘a false one’. Rather it showed the contrary, the degree to which the nations and regions of the UK were ‘dependent’ on aid and investment ‘from the centre’. While Northern Ireland ‘never wanted to be forced into Home Rule,’ observed Mackintosh, ‘it must be accepted that the system has become popular.’

Nicholas Mansergh had been similarly approving, writing in 1936 that he believed it ‘probable that a more moderate measure of Devolution, in accordance with the principle of the Northern Ireland experiment, might secure very serious consideration both in Scotland and Wales’. Writing in the late 1970s, however, Patrick Buckland was less positive, believing the experience of Stormont to represent a conclusive argument against planned Assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Indeed, ‘direct rule’ of Northern Ireland from Westminster, implemented amid sectarian violence in 1972, removed the UK’s only devolved legislature just as debates intensified about creating two more on the mainland, although these failed to transpire due to a combination of unhappy Labour MPs and muted public enthusiasm. Only twenty years later was legislative devolution revived in Northern Ireland and applied to Scotland and Wales for the first time, the Scotland, Government of Wales and Northern Ireland Acts of 1998 transforming the UK’s territorial constitution, though still asymmetrically rather than federally.

The new ‘Northern Ireland Assembly’, elected following the Good Friday Agreement, owed a lot to the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and occupied the Stormont complex built for the old Northern Ireland Parliament in 1932. That Assembly had a troubled first decade, suspended between 2002-07 due to disagreements between the Nationalist and Unionist parties which by statute had to share power in a carefully-designed Executive Committee.

When Northern Irish parties arrived in St Andrews, Scotland, in 2006 for talks intended to revived the devolved institutions, Jack McConnell, First Minister of Scotland, ‘left them in no doubt that [devolution] has been good for Scotland’ (Belfast Telegraph, 11 October 2006). Now that Unionism (be it Conservative or Labour) had embraced legislative devolution in Scotland as well as Northern Ireland, it could afford to be so unequivocal.


Dr David Torrance is a Senior Clerk in the House of Commons Library. Follow him on Twitter: @davidtorrance


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