Belfast Telegraph

The Scots don't do bitter like we do... Northern Ireland has to learn from them if we are ever to handle our new devolved powers

By Liam Clarke

It is all change from now on. The Scottish referendum has created a political wave that will roll well beyond next year's general election. With care, Stormont could ride on its crest to a better place; on past form, though, there is a big danger that we could be swamped.

The challenges will start quickly. Legislation on the devolution of new tax and spending powers within the UK is being drafted right now.

Next month details of new legislation will be published. It is very likely that we will be offered powers over corporation tax and other revenue areas, perhaps income tax.

Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein is already rubbing his hands, and demanding full fiscal powers from London. That would include income tax, VAT and the rest. Peter Robinson of the DUP was more cautious, and poured scorn on the ability of Sinn Fein to handle tax raising powers.

It is a bad sign that the wrangling has started already and a worse one that the two leaders could not make a joint statement in the same city. Mr McGuinness spoke in Londonderry and Mr Robinson made his comments in Belfast.

Both men and their parties need to get their act together because things will move quickly. This offer of more devolution is a double-edged sword. Unlike Scotland, we take in less tax per head of population than any other region. If we take too much on, or take on the wrong things, then we will be worse off than before.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness will fail our society and their voters if their reactions are slow or if they thwart each other with blocking tactics. David Cameron made the point yesterday morning as he went through the challenges for other parts of the UK. Wales, he said, should be centrally in the debate.

"In Northern Ireland," he warned "we must work to ensure that the devolved institutions function effectively."

It is a stark warning. There are big economic decisions to be taken. A dysfunctional system of government, as the First Minister put it, or dysfunctional politicians, as Sinn Fein retorted, will not be able to take them effectively, or at all. The next few months, when powers to be devolved will be agreed and deals struck, will affect us for a generation.

This devolution debate won't just be about lining up from rewards and concessions like the Good Friday negotiations were. They are likely to stop our MPs taking decisions on areas that have been devolved to us when there are Westminster votes that will only affect England. That will be the preserve of English MPs, English laws as Mr Cameron put it. Yet our block grant allocation will depend on spending decisions in England.

As a region that can't yet pay its own way with its own taxes, we need to take smart decisions on where we want autonomy and where we want parity with London.

There are lessons from the Scottish referendum experience. One is that the Scots don't do bitter like we do bitter here. It is true there were ugly moments. When Nick Robinson of the BBC repeatedly accused Alex Salmond of not answering a question a mob gathered outside the corporation's Glasgow headquarters and Mr Robinson was heckled at rallies right up to Wednesday.

Jim Murphy, a Labour MP, was forced to briefly abandon his soap box campaign, but quickly resumed it again.

Salmond, the SNP leader, said he had received death threats, which he dismissed.

That was a shock for Scotland and it went down so badly that such incidents were fairly isolated. It was nothing compared to the stand-offs that accompanied the Good Friday Agreement, the subsequent referendum and the election that followed, never mind the loyalist mobbing of Martin O Muilleoir as Lord Mayor last year. That is leaving aside armed violence.

Even if a few secretly enjoy the spectacle of politicians being mobbed, battles royal at Stormont or leaders claiming everything is a resignation matter, the hard fact is that we can't afford it. This has always cost money, and now that we have devolution the money comes out of our own budget. That will be increasingly be the case if Mr Cameron has his way.

Here, as in Scotland, many people reject a culture of bullying and entrenchment in politics. We need to replace it with a culture where politicians play more to the positives of a situation rather than looking for the worm in every bud. There is a silent majority who are fed up with this and it shows in surveys, from our own LucidTalk opinion polls to those carried out by the BBC or the two universities, such as the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

They confirm what you hear every day. Many people are sick of whataboutery, where one wrong is presented as a reason for not addressing another. They are sick of the zero sum game where a gain by one party is automatically resented as a loss by another. Rows over flags, memorials to Troubles-era killers and intransigence up on the hill are sore points which hold up progress on important issues and should not be allowed to fester.

Only this week there was trench warfare between unionists and Sinn Fein over proposals for a process to deal with parading in Ardoyne, which was endorsed by the Belfast Telegraph. It promised a standalone way of examining parading issues in north Belfast through public consultation and a report. The unionists put conditions and an unrealistic timetable on it, and Sinn Fein responded by rejecting it out of hand. If both groups hold their positions the outcome will be the continuation of camp Twaddell, at huge cost to the police, and a new stand-off next year.

Mr Cameron rightly says that we need devolved institutions which function effectively, but he cannot leave it at that. His Government should convene talks and join with the Irish Government, supported if possible by the Americans, to encourage our politicians towards a compromise. They will need carrots, sticks and united voices to get us over this hump.

Theresa Villiers should start the process quickly. Past experience shows that agreement on tough issues is only reached when our politicians can say they had little alternative. They need the threat of something worse and the promise of financial sweeteners, like a rebate on some of the cost of welfare reform, to justify compromise.

This is a sign of political immaturity which we need help to leave behind us. Troubles-era tactics won't meet the challenges of a devolution settlement which will increasingly force us to stand on our own feet.

The UK is about to become a different place, not so united and perhaps more like the federal German State than it is now. That will challenge the assumptions of both unionism and nationalism. We cannot successfully play this new game by the old rules.

What they said...

First Minister Peter Robinson

“This was a decision to be taken by the people of Scotland and they participated in overwhelming numbers. There is a sense of relief throughout the UK and I welcome the fact that Scotland has voted to remain within the United Kingdom.”

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

“The debate around the referendum ensures that things will never be the same again for Scotland or elsewhere. It showed it is possible to discuss important constitutional issues in a spirit of respect for all sides. I believe we could do that without opening up divisions detrimental to the institutions.”

Taoiseach Enda Kenny

“As neighbours, friends and partners across political, economic, cultural and many other spheres, relations between Ireland and Britain have never been stronger. We look forward to working with all parties across in the years ahead.”

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams

“The people of Scotland engaged in an informed and respectful debate and have made their choice. It is time for the people who share this island to have a respectful and informed debate with regard to Irish unity or continued partition.”

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt

“This is a victory for common sense. This vote proves that the Union is durable and creates an opportunity to fashion it for the 21st century. So far devolution has happened on a piecemeal basis.”

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell

“The SNP have taken forward how politics in terms of how the ‘Union’ is defined. It is essential that the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive learn these lessons. We need to maximise our achievements for the good of all of our people.”

Alliance MP Naomi Long

“There will now be a new constitutional settlement for the UK, which will have potentially significant impact on Northern Ireland. Whilst Alliance remains committed to enhanced devolved powers, that case can only effectively be made in the context of an effectively functioning Assembly.”

TUV leader Jim Allister

“I am delighted with the comfortable win for the Union in Scotland. This is a good result for the whole United Kingdom. Well done to all in Scotland who fought so hard see off this attempt to break up the UK. It is important that HMG does not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by devolving powers beyond that which sustains the essential unity of the UK.”

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