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David Cameron launches biggest ever shake-up in the constitution

Referendum pledge will give Stormont increased authority

By Adrian Rutherford

David Cameron has fired the starting gun on a UK-wide constitutional shake-up – with Northern Ireland set to get extra powers within months.

The Prime Minister said it was time for more voices to be heard in the wake of Scotland's historic decision to reject independence.

He said work would start on a "full and fair settlement for all of the UK" in what appeared to be a shift towards a more federalist nation.

Last night it was being hailed as one of the most significant developments in British politics in a generation.

It could see Northern Ireland handed more powers over tax, spending and welfare.

Draft legislation on the matter is expected to be put forward by January.

But the announcement has already sparked a political row here. Martin McGuinness welcomed the possibility of further fiscal powers and called for a border poll on Irish unity.

But Peter Robinson struck a cautious tone, arguing ministers in Northern Ireland need to show competence in dealing with existing powers before Westminster considers devolving more

It came after Scottish voters chose to maintain the 307-year-old Union in a landmark referendum.

In a day of fast-moving political developments:

  • More than two million Scots rejected separation, with the 55% to 45% majority wider than had been expected.
  • Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond resigned, but vowed "the dream shall never die".
  • Mr Cameron immediately pledged to follow through on a pre-referendum promise to hand Scotland more powers if it voted to maintain the Union.
  • He spoke of the need for "a balanced settlement", indicating that Northern Ireland and Wales would also benefit from greater devolved powers.

Mr Cameron outlined his plans outside Downing Street in the wake of the referendum result, which saw 2,001,926 Scots vote to stay united.

However, Mr Cameron warned that it was time that the "millions of voices of England" were heard.

His shake-up means new powers for Northern Ireland and Wales, and greater influence for England's MPs over English law.

Earlier this week, with the result of the independence vote apparently finely balanced, Mr Cameron had joined forces with David Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in pledging further powers for Scotland's Parliament if its voters rejected independence.

Yesterday Mr Cameron said: "The three pro-Union parties have made commitments on further powers for the Scottish Parliament.

"We will ensure that they are honoured."

But he added: "Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over theirs.

"It is absolutely right that a new and fair settlement for Scotland should be accompanied by a new and fair settlement that applies to all parts of the United Kingdom.

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

Mr Cameron said the question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.

He added: "So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues – and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland."

Mr Cameron said the draft legislation would be prepared by January, in line with the timetable laid out in the run-up to the referendum.

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