About 100 loyalists attacked police officers in East Belfast last week, using bricks, bottles and fireworks as part of a broader (nonviolent) protest against the decision of City Hall to fly the union flag on certain days. One person was arrested on charges of attempted murder after shots were fired at police. Police closed off certain areas of the city and responded to protesters with water cannons.
The protests mark a reversal in the progress towards peace in Northern Ireland. Following protracted negotiations between loyalists (those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom) and unionists (those who want independence for Northern Ireland), the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998. The agreement established the Northern Ireland Assembly, which ensured representation for key political groups using an electoral system that encompasses both proportional representation and single-transferrable vote elements.
Recall that proportional representation provides seats in the legislature in relation to the portion of the national vote a party receives. Thus, if a party receives 20 percent of the popular vote, it is entitled to 20 percent of the seats in the legislature. Single-transferable vote requires voters to rank-choice their preferences, so that if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, the votes earned by the lowest ranked candidate are redistributed to the voter’s second choice, and so on, until a candidate receives an absolute majority. Both systems are intended to promote inclusion of minority voices in the parliament.
The establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly was also part of a broader political agenda of devolution, or the dissemination of power from the national government to regional and local governments. The most well-known example of devolution is the Scottish Parliament, established in 1998, which has successfully governed Scotland under the terms established by the British government since then. In Northern Ireland, devolution was been more problematic, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended on several occasions as a result of political instability and violence.
The devolution of political authority to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has raised interesting questions in British politics. Perhaps the most interesting is known as the West Lothian question (sometimes also called the England Question). The West Lothian question is the result of the devolution of political authority in the United Kingdom. National legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were established to deal with domestic affairs in those countries, while the (national) British Parliament in London continues to deal with key areas of reserved powers (such as national defense and currency) as well as issues of local interest to England. But while all countries are represented in the national parliament in London, regional parliaments have no national representation. Thus, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish members of parliament vote on domestic English issues, while English MPs do not vote on Scottish, Welsh, or Irish domestic issues. Many English MPs view this as fundamentally unfair, and the British government recently established a panel (the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons) to investigate the question and report back this year.
What do you think? Is devolution politically problematic in the United Kingdom? Is it unfair? And how is it related to recent developments in Northern Ireland? Take the poll or leave a comment below and share your thoughts.