There are huge differences between Wales and Northern Ireland, and I can’t believe that anyone in Wales would really wish it otherwise, given the tragedies of the past. The negotiations over the contentious issues are still in progress as I write this, with the deadline set coming increasingly close. But the suggestion made in a news bulletin last night that the failure of the talks could lead back to direct rule underlines one key similarity, which is inherent in the devolution process.
Power devolved is power retained. No matter how often Westminster politicians and others talk about – in the Scottish context – making the devolved institutions inviolable without their consent, the reality of the English constitution is that there is no recognition of any source of power other than the centre.
The National Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, and the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly all exist by the grace of HM, as expressed through decisions of her parliament. And what is granted through grace can be withdrawn in the same way.
Sadly, the idea that power is a top-down concept has taken hold in all of the parties in the Assembly as well; their attitude towards local government in Wales seems little different in effect from the underlying attitude of the English establishment to the devolved bodies - power belongs to those who hold it.There is an alternative view, not often heard these days, which is that power actually belongs to all of us, and it is for us to decide where it is pooled and exercised. That involves recognising the democratic mandate of all elected bodies at all levels, and the right of people in any area to choose a different set of policies if they wish. It’s a concept which all the politicians seem to struggle with, but it’s the key to the meaningful involvement and participation that many of them say that they want. A republic would be a good starting point.