Belfast Telegraph

No chance to play blame game in full devolution divorce

Debate about full Scottish devolution is fascinating to watch - from this side of the North Channel, writes Henry McDonald

Who's afraid of Devo-Max? It is a question that should be addressed not only to David Cameron, but also to the political leadership of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Alex Salmond, who was in Dublin last Friday at a British-Irish Council summit, certainly isn't. In fact, Scotland's First Minister is probably more fearful to ask a more outright constitutional question along the lines of "Who wants divorce from the UK?"

Realising that a majority of Scots are still - if the opinion polls are correct - opposed to full independence, Salmond wishes instead to go for the salami-slicing route to outright separation.

Under maximum devolution, Scotland would still nominally be within the UK and areas such as foreign policy and defence would remain in Westminster's hands.

However, Devo-Max would grant the Scots full tax-raising powers and the right to determine its public spending policies, free from Treasury shackles.

In the Scottish National Party leader's mind, a dose of Devo-Max for a few years will give a greater number of Scots the confidence to seek complete independence in the near future and reduce the percentages in favour of maintaining the Union.

The tax-and-spend element of Devo-Max though poses problems even for such a canny political operator as Salmond.

Some English commentators have suggested Cameron should put it up to Salmond and the SNP government; to give them the freedom to put Devo-Max to a referendum, but in doing so explain to the Scottish electorate that such an outcome will result in higher taxes and greater public expenditure.

During their meeting in Dublin, Martin McGuinness jokingly offered Alex Salmond and David Cameron a room. The Deputy First Minister suggested that he and Peter Robinson could hold peace talks between the leaders of England and Scotland.

Even if such an unlikely scenario took place, there is even less likelihood that McGuinness and Robinson would join in the debate, to argue for greater Devo-Max-style powers for Stormont.

Because, can you really imagine that the five-party coalition would want to take on the type of powers the Edinburgh government appears to desire after the referendum in 2014?

At present, when it comes to tax-and-spend, the power-sharing Executive plays a game of charades involving the Treasury. The former generates virtually no tax-raising revenue and relies almost solely on the life-support system of the latter.

The Executive's sole fiscal function is to move the quantity of money the Treasury gives it to the various departments at Stormont. The local politicians have the luxury of blaming the English for the cost-cutting programmes they have to impose, pointing out that their hands are tied by a Treasury committed to austerity cuts.

Under Devo-Max, of course, this luxury would disappear.

In addition, Devo-Max is unworkable here simply because there is not enough income generated in the local economy to support the area of the UK with the highest proportion of public sector workers. This society is massively dependant on the state and that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Indeed, state-sector support for the economy may have to increase once the Nama-effect starts to impact on the Northern Ireland housing market.

The flooding of cheap Nama properties (formerly owned by bankrupt builder-speculators) into the market will depress prices even further than the low point they are at present.

Public sector building/capital projects may be the only way to stimulate the construction industry, given the state of the private housing market.

Salmond and the SNP used to look not so much across the North Channel, but rather in the direction of Dublin as they plotted a course towards independence.

The Scottish First Minister used to talk about the "arc of prosperity" of small, free nations like the Republic and Iceland as a shining example for Scotland to follow.

For Ireland and arguably Iceland, too, that shining example has turned into a dark warning. The Republic is broke and its sovereignty heavily compromised.

Having lived and worked in Glasgow and Edinburgh, it became apparent that blaming the English for all ills is something of a national sport. Devo-Max would, of course, make that pastime somewhat redundant in Scotland.

Would our local rulers like to give that game up and accept full responsibility for taxation and spending in a Northern Irish version of Devo-Max? In the present climate, that prospect looks unlikely.

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