Devolutionary struggles

If Friday’s Scottish Edition of The Times is anything to go by, relations between the Northern Irish Executive and Scottish Government are at their lowest ebb for years. The headline, “Offer of abortions in Scotland risks row with Northern Ireland”, was echoed across a number of front pages in Scotland and underlines how fraught relations between the two devolved administrations have become.

The headline itself relates to a question asked by Patrick Harvie, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday. Referring to women who cross the Irish sea in order to have an abortion, Mr Harvie asked: “Does the First Minister agree that the national health service in Scotland should be exploring what can be done to ensure that those women are able to access abortion in Scotland, if that is where they choose to travel to, without facing that kind of unacceptable financial barrier?”

To which Nicola Sturgeon replied: “I am happy to explore with the NHS what the situation is now in terms of the ability of women from Northern Ireland to access safe and legal abortion in NHS Scotland and whether any improvements can be made.”

A spokeswoman for the First Minister confirmed this is an issue being considered very seriously by the Scottish Government.

The irony is that both the SNP government in Holyrood and the SF-DUP Executive at Stormont are arguing for very similar outcomes in the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

Responses from Northern Ireland’s politicians and campaigners were carried in Friday’s Belfast Telegraph with the headline “SNP’s Sturgeon told to butt out after abortion row ‘invite” to Northern Ireland women” and are noteworthy for a real sense of fury at what is seen as Scottish interference in Northern Irish affairs.

This is merely the latest spat between the two administrations and between the DUP and SNP in particular. The DUP’s pro-UK, anti-EU stance and the SNP’s anti-UK, pro-EU stance lies at the centre of this dysfunctional relationship which has seen the DUP intervene in Scottish politics as recently as late October when Arlene Foster gave an interview slamming the SNP for pushing a second independence referendum and arguing that Northern Ireland should come first when it came to Brexit considerations.

The irony is that both the SNP government in Holyrood and the SF-DUP Executive at Stormont are arguing for very similar outcomes in the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness’ letter to Prime Minister Theresa May on 10th August and the Scottish government’s official response make that clear. Both administrations want continued access to the single market, open borders, skilled labour and protection for researchers, farmers and other key industries.

Devolved administrations now have stronger relationships with countries outside the UK than with one another.

Yet the inability of the Scottish and Northern Irish administrations to work together on a key policy area such as Brexit, and the willingness of the Scottish Government to openly undermine the NI Executive on an issue such as abortion, highlights just how little cooperation and coordination there is between the UK’s devolved administrations.

In fact, the relationships between the UK’s devolved administrations are pretty much non-existent. There are formal channels for inter-governmental discussions such as the British-Irish Council and the Joint Ministerial Committee, but these institutions have merely served to cement a hub and spoke model of governance where each devolved administration has a separate relationship with London.

Cooperation between opposition and backbench members of the Scottish Parliament, NI Assembly and Welsh Assembly is even less meaningful – even when they are members of the same party. As a result, devolved administrations now have stronger relationships with countries outside the UK than with one another.

This is disappointing. There is much to be gained from MLAs, MSPs and AMs working together. On issues from devolved powers to funding formulas, and welfare to Brexit, speaking as one would give the UK’s regions a stronger voice at Westminster.

Speaking as one would give the UK’s regions a stronger voice at Westminster.

Yet they also need to be willing to learn from one another. Scotland, for instance, is increasingly likely to renationalise its railways unless Abellio, the current operator of the Scotrail franchise, gets its act together. In considering this policy the Scottish government would benefit from looking across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland’s nationalised rail service. Why shouldn’t the infrastructure ministers and committees of both administrations meet and compare notes?

All that is not to say that devolved administrations should shy away from engaging in important debates elsewhere – provided they approach them in the right way. Giving critical interviews or passing judgement from the safety of a Parliamentary bully-pulpit almost never changes minds, but a thoughtful, considered intervention can.

Conservative MSP Ruth Davidson demonstrated this in August when she spoke at Belfast’s annual Pride celebration and called for equal marriage to be extended to Northern Ireland – an intervention in Northern Irish politics that was made all the more powerful because the leader of Scotland’s official opposition took the time to meet with both sides of the debate before her speech. This is a model of engagement that Nicola Sturgeon, Arlene Foster and Patrick Harvie would do well do emulate.

About James McMordie

James is a PhD student in the Department of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His interests include European, British and Northern Irish politics, foreign policy and history.