Belfast Telegraph

Stalemate leaves us in the cold on 'power grab'

Analysis

By John Simpson

The Scottish and Welsh Governments have jointly published proposed amendments to the European Union (withdrawal bill) and describe their actions as trying to avoid a Westminster 'power grab'.

If a Northern Ireland Executive had been in place, there would have been an expectation that these fears would also have reflected the wishes of the NI Assembly. Sadly, there is no reference to an NI perspective in the submission.

The Scottish government has identified 111 policy areas where it claims that the UK Government has created an arrangement where, unless there is specific Westminster action on policies which should be devolved, the areas may be claimed as part of UK responsibilities, reducing the scope of devolved administrations.

This possible adjustment of the devolved responsibilities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will occur because the repeal of EU legislation by a transfer to the UK brings together a full range of topics which inevitably impinge on devolution.

The Scots and Welsh want no diminution of devolved responsibilities and want any doubt removed by seeking a direct transfer to the devolved institutions: not a two-stage process where the powers return to Westminster and then Westminster can decide which powers go on to Edinburgh and Cardiff.

For NI, this legislative process raises unanswered questions. There is the procedural question and then a series of questions on the substantive policies. The central question is whether, from a local perspective, NI would have the same interests as the Scots and Welsh in adding the former EU responsibilities to the Stormont agenda. High on the list of options are questions about decision making on agriculture and fisheries. These two big policy areas come with the added dimension not just of devolved authority but including (or excluding) responsibility for budgetary allocations.

Other areas where the allocation of devolved responsibilities poses questions for both UK and local influence, as quoted by the Scottish government, include environmental legislation, land use, genetically modified organisms, Europol, public sector procurement, rules on State Aid and forestry. The decision-making on fisheries policies has a possible cross-border dimension. Even if, for the buying and selling of goods, the Brexit negotiations avoid an explicit border mechanism (which looks more and more difficult as the talks stumble forward), for fisheries the question will become the influence of the 'border at sea'.

Will a special deal be negotiated to allow Irish and Northern Irish fishing vessels to have open access to the designated fishing areas on both sides of the 'border at sea'?

Will fishing boats from Kilkeel and Ardglass work freely in Irish catchment areas?

Will fish be landed at Kilkeel or Ardglass from Irish vessels and come into the UK via NI?

If the UK introduces fishing quotas, how will they be reconciled with Irish policies?

Will the UK fisheries policy need to have differentiated policies for Northern Irish and Scottish registered vessels?

Developing farm policies will also test ingenuity. The UK Minister, Michael Gove, has given NI farmers an early assurance that the budget for farm policy in NI will (initially) stay at the same proportion of all UK spending on farm supports. That may prove a useful baseline.

However, does NI wish to have budget flexibility to spend that sum in ways devised at Stormont, or will a parity principle apply: will NI have the same farm policies?

In NI we have been too slow in debating and deciding how these questions might be resolved. Have any of the political leaders begun to consider ideas?

Silence is an inadequate response.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular