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'A New Constitution for Northern Ireland' by New Ulster Movement (1972)



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Text: New Ulster Movement ... Page Compiled Brendan Lynn

The following pamphlet was published by the New Ulster Movement in August 1972. The views expressed in this pamphlet do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

A
NEW
CONSTITUTION
FOR
NORTHERN
IRELAND
August 1972

 

 

A New Ulster Movement Publication



 

A NEW CONSTITUTION FOR NORTHERN IRELAND

1. The proposals contained in this publication should be read as the fourth in a series of linked papers. In the first of these, "THE REFORM OF STORMONT" (June 1971), we analysed the weakness of the existing Northern Ireland political structure and suggested this could be summed up as being "that the Westminster model of government has been applied in a society to which it is not suited". We went on to say: "The Westminster model works well only in rather special circumstances. It is a system which can easily lead to tyranny, because it produces a remarkable concentration of power in the government of the day. To avoid this risk, the system requires the existence of two strong parties, competing with each other at elections on fairly even terms. Where this happens, power is not monopolised by a single team of ministers, but alternates between two teams, which between them have the support of the great majority of the electorate……In such circumstances the government will treat the opposition with respect, and will even consult it on matters of policy, because ministers know that their own turn in opposition may come soon, and that they will then be glad of considerate treatment from their successors in government. It is easy to see that, in Northern Ireland, the conditions for working the Westminster model have not been attained……This means that one section of the community has monopolised power, with consequent tendencies to complacency, arrogance and at times injustice; while another section has been excluded from power, with consequent tendencies’ to frustration, irresponsibility and at times a hankering after violent solutions. The political structure of the province, instead of assuaging community discord, have been so designed that they increase it".

2. On this basis we then proceeded to outline those constitutional devices open to government and parliament of Northern Ireland so as to introduce a degree of power sharing and participation into the then existing devolved parliamentary structure of Stormont. One of these - proportional representation on the basis of the 'single transferable vote' - has been accepted for the forthcoming Local Government elections in principle and should be extended to: the Regional Assembly referred to below. The other devices - the use of parliamentary committees, an enlarged parliament, the reconstruction of the senate, power sharing in the cabinet and the use of weighted majorities - have not received due consideration prior to the prorogation of Stormont in March 1972.

3. "THE WAY FORWARD", although published in November 1971,was based upon a memorandum sent to the Home Secretary in November 1970 and circulated privately in Northern Ireland. Whilst advocating the suspension of Stormont by our sovereign authority at Westminster, we nonetheless regarded suspension as an unfortunate but necessary temporary decision. Indeed we said then: "The right to the principle of devolved government is the bedrock of our proposals. This principle is inviolate……We favour the retention under the sovereign authority of Westminster, of the principle of devolved government in Northern Ireland". We advocated suspension because we could see no prospect of "good government for all our people" evolving out of a parliamentary structure dominated by sectarian politics.

4. Our third publication "TWO IRELANDS OR ONE?" analysed the problems in the way of any plans for the unification of Ireland. We posed the question that if justice for all our citizens in Northern Ireland could be obtained "by a restructuring of institutions in the north so as to guarantee a sharing of power" the strength of the case for a United Ireland would be altered. Finally we asked in that publication: "Provided a just re-structuring can be achieved in the North would it not be better for all of us if you (the Republic of Ireland) went your way and we (Northern Ireland)went ours - two states acknowledging their different traditions but ready to co-operate in all matters of common concern?".

5. The points raised in the preceding paragraphs remain the policy of N.U.M. Recent tragic events have, if anything, strengthened them. Before outlining the constitutional changes which we believe ought now to follow suspension, there are two further points to be noted. Firstly, we subscribe fully to the 1969 "Downing Street Declaration" which designated "equality of citizenship" as the only proper basis for the administration of our country.

6. Secondly, we believe that all citizens, whether they be Unionists, Nationalists, Republicans, Communists, or whatever, have the right to hold their political opinions and to advance their cause by every means within the rule of law. In particular those who aspire to a United Ireland have been promised periodic referenda which is the only feasible, legitimate way of testing public opinion to have been advanced so far. The first referendum should be for a period of 10 years.

 

Recommended Constitutional Changes

7. Before outlining the changes we advocate, we would record that we do not seek the return of either the old Stormont or indeed of any structure resembling a "Parliament". Many of our current divisions have their roots in the erroneous belief that Stormont was a Sovereign authority. That contention is untenable. Nonetheless, it is easy to understand that 50 years of acquaintance with an institution which, by Westminster design, appeared in its external symbols to resemble so closely that sovereign Parliament, would lead many of our people to believe those who, for political reasons, chose to argue that Stormont was a sovereign authority. One in fact, which could not be changed, let alone suspended, except it agreed to any such change itself. The trappings of sovereignty, which included not only a representative of the Queen, a Privy Council and a Prime Minister, but also a Cabinet and a Senate, a Speaker and Black Rod, Sergeant-at-arms and Gentlemen ushers, encouraged people to believe that Stormont represented something it was never intended to be. We do not wish to return to those days. The symbolism of the new structure should match the realities. Therefore:-

 

8. A REGIONAL ASSEMBLY

There should be elected on the basis of Proportional Representation (STV) a Regional Assembly to administer Northern Ireland as a region of the United Kingdom. The administrative arguments for having our own limited autonomy are still valid (THE WAY FORWARD p 7/8). Indeed the Macrory reform of local government, which has our support, makes some kind of regional authority essential.

9. The Assembly should be larger in size than the old Stormont (REFORM OF STORMONT p8 para 3). However, elections should be based on the twelve existing Westminster constituencies. That number should not be increased as has been suggested elsewhere. It would seem that the boundaries of all, or some, of the constituencies would need to be redrawn. The number of seats in each of these 12 constituencies for election to our Regional Assembly should be either 6 or 7 (i.e. a total of 72-84 members). This formula should provide Northern Irish citizens with the same degree of participation in the government of their country as obtains elsewhere in the Kingdom. Under this arrangement Westminster M.P.s will be able to liaise closely with the Regional Assembly representatives of their own constituency. Citizens themselves will have the opportunity for the first time, of identifying their constituency with both Westminster and the Regional Assembly. We recommend that dual membership (of Parliament and the Regional Assembly) should be forbidden. The salary of a member of tire Regional Assembly should be sufficient to attract competent candidates is and to encourage them to devote the maximum of their time to the work of the Assembly.

10. The Regional Assembly should not include a second chamber. The former Senate was an unnecessary piece of pretentiousness which added nothing to the quality or efficiency of the administration but did help to inflate the image of Stormont. We e would prefer to see decisions and participation in the decision making machinery directed downwards towards the people and not elevated upwards. away from the people. Although we considered the argument which favours a second chamber if it is composed of special interest groups e.g. Trade Unions, Universities, Farmers’ organisations etc. (REFORM OF STORMONT p9 paras 1.4), we believe that this principle can best be attained, as outlined below, without recourse to such a second chamber.

 

11. THE AUTHORITY OF THE REGIONAL ASSEMBLY

Substantially this should be the same as that enjoyed by the Northern Ireland Parliament from 192 1-72, provided it is made legally and explicitly clear that the Regional Assembly is, in every respect, subordinate to the Westminster parliament. The retention of the scale of authority vested in the old Stormont is only advocated in conjunction with the keystone to these proposals which is concerned with the ‘power sharing’ devices outlined below. Control of the police would remain in Northern Ireland provided that it is made a fully civilianised force, totally unarmed, clearly separated from the political arena and subject to an effective Police Authority and inspection by the British Inspector General of Police.

12. Although we recommend that the control of the police be retained in the hands of an independent Police Authority, we believe that the functions and responsibility of this body require to be re-emphasised so that matters other than those of a purely administrative nature, e.g. working conditions and public relations, are given the top priority they deserve. ‘I make the Police Authority more of a reality to the community, we recommend the setting up of area committees throughout the country to act as local police liaison committees. Such committees would send representatives to the central authority which in turn would have an executive of its own.

 

13. THE SHARING OF POWER

This is the most important, and, heretofore, the most intractable problem. In the past the difficulty was increased by the fact that Northern Ireland followed the Westminster pattern of concentrating power in a strong cabinet. This meant that schemes for power-sharing tended to turn into schemes for choosing the cabinet in some new way. We suggested for instance, in "THE REFORM OF STORMONT", that it he chosen by P.R. and should be based on the Swiss model. A Cabinet drawn from different parties could work only if the parties shared a minimum common purpose, and there was no sign in Northern Ireland of this minimum being reached. The suspension of Stormont, however has cleared the ground. There is now no Cabinet, strong or otherwise, and a wider range of options comes into view. A number of devices exist for diffusing power, and different ones can be used in different fields of government. The following paragraphs will identity some of these devices, and suggest where they might be useful in the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.

14. Decentralisation of control to local authorities. This means that each community at least has control in the areas where it is in a majority and it is a device widely used in other divided countries. In Northern Ireland, however, the Macrory report - which the opposition supported - went decisively the other way. There is no point at this stage in attempting any general reversal of the Macrory proposals local government has been in the melting pot for far too long already. But there may be particular subjects for which this device would be appropriate or even necessary. The use of this device will be more apposite when, as Macrory envisaged, greater power returns eventually to local government.

15. Delegation of control to statutory bodies, on which the different strands of opinion in the province would be represented roughly in proportion to numerical strength. This is the device already adopted in Northern Ireland for managing housing, and the Community Relations Commission. To some extent, when the new areas boards come into operation, it will be used for health, education and social services, there have been complaints about the way in which particular members of Statutory bodies were chosen, and it will be necessary to find a formula acceptable to the members of the Assembly in future which is fair and reasonable for the nomination of members to such bodies. But in principle the device seems a sensible one.

16. The use of Parliamentary committees (REFORM OF STORMONT p 6/7/8 section 2). The British Parliament, and the parliaments modelled on it, like Stormont arid Dail Eireann, are exceptional in that they use committees so little. In many democratic countries the bulk of the work of parliament is done by committees, each specialising in a different subject. The full parliament meets only to scrutinise bills etc., which have been reported to it by the various committees. This arrangement is not peculiar to countries with community problems - indeed it is also the basis on which local authorities in Britain are run. But it does have an additional advantage in countries with such problems. This arises from the nature of committee work. In a committee, working away from the glare of publicity, and with its members getting to know each other very well, influence becomes increasingly detached from party labels. Men with a real knowledge of their subject tend to win the respect of other members of their committee, regardless of party allegiance. Thus a member of a minority party may, in committee, wield an influence that he is unlikely to have in the Assembly as a whole. As proposed later these committees would replace the Cabinet system. Therefore each committee should be linked with the relevant civil service department(s). Each committee should have a limited power to consult or employ specialists or experts.

17. The distribution of committee chairmanships among members of different parties in proportion to party strength in the Assembly. It is a fact of observation that committee chairmen can be influential people. By their handling of a discussion they can make a considerable difference to its outcome. In some parliaments they are given additional powers. They may determine the committees’ agenda. and they may engage the specialist staff on which it depends for an independent estimate of the case put up to it by government departments. If committee chairmanships are divided between parties in proportion to their parliamentary strength, then this is an important further means for diffusing power. As it is one already proposed by the Unionists in their Green Paper of last year, there should be no difficulty in getting it accepted.

18. The weighted majority. This means arranging that, in controversial areas e.g. the police, planning etc. decisions must be taken by more than a bare majority.

19. The adoption of these devices would make possible a still more radical departure: the abolition of the Cabinet. If decision-making were diffused on the lines suggested above there would he no longer any need for a Cabinet. Decisions which have hitherto been made in the Cabinet would be made by committees of the Assembly. Co-ordination is obtained by committee chairmen consulting and effecting necessary liason with each other. By adopting this technique Proportional Representation in government is achieved.

 

20. THE CHAIRMAN OF THE ASSEMBLY.

The chairman of the Assembly would be elected annually by the committee chairmen from among their own members. He should not be eligible for re-election for three years.

 

21. THE SECRETARY OF STATE.

We wish to retain the presence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. lie should be a member of the Westminster Cabinet, open the Regional Assembly and act as the link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

 

22. NORTH/SOUTH RELATIONS.

This subject is bound to arise in considering the constitution of Northern Ireland (but see 'TWO IRELANDS OR ONE?'). Since the creation of the Irish Free State/Republic and Northern Ireland, the relationship between the two has never been satisfactory and most of the time has been distinctly unfriendly. The paramount aim must he to reconcile the two communities in Northern Ireland and the Republic, at all levels. The first prerequisite is clearly recognition by the Republic of the political status in international law of Northern Ireland as a region of the United Kingdom and its right to remain such until a majority of its citizens decide otherwise. Meanwhile our parameters are clear. On the one side there can be no question of coercing Unionists into a United Ireland. Successive British governments of both parties are pledged against this. We should also note that the Dublin government, supported by the opposition parties, the S.D.L.P. and Nationalist parties all subscribe to the principle that a United Ireland should not and must not be obtained under duress, by force or without the freely given consent of the majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland. On the other hand Nationalists and Republicans must be assured that there is absolutely no impediment in any new administrative structure, directly or indirectly, preventing social, economic, cultural and political exchanges - even if these might ultimately lead to agreed changes in political relationships.

23. These requirements are not incompatible. Mr Faulkner and leading Unionist spokesmen have accepted that Republicans have equal rights with Unionists to express their viewpoint or canvass their political creeds without interference. These rights, in both cases, exclude recourse to violence or other illegal methods.

24. Our immediate aim, therefore, should be the establishment of a permanent policy of’ good neighbourliness between North and South, to increase, where mutually beneficial, areas of co-operation and joint action. The particular devices or structures we advocate are:

25. An Act of Human Rights in specific detail. The act would provide for access of’ aggrieved persons and organisations to a Tribunal modelled on Industrial tribunals, with a minimum of rules of procedure and with an ultimate appeal to a Tribunal made up of Judges drawn equally from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

26. The creation of an all Ireland Standing Committee to keep the laws of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic under constant review and to keep divergencies to a minimum. In our opinion having regard to their common obligations and commitments in the E.E.C. this Standing Committee might well include Great Britain.

27. The sharing of power through a system of Parliamentary Committees in the Dail, so as to enable meetings on matters of common interest between the committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly and committees of the Dail.

28. The establishment of a standing committee of educationalists and others to study and advise on all aspects of education in Ireland with immediate reference to the study and teaching of Irish History and the promotion, by means of schools curriculae, of better community relations.

29. Administration of matters of joint interest by joint statutory bodies. Precedents for this already exist in the Foyle Fisheries Commission and similar structures. Tourism, Trade and Agricultural interests clearly lend themselves to similar structures.

30. Joint Development Commission. Ireland, North and South, lies well outside the "Golden Triangle" of the E.E.C. Many of us have grave doubts as to the effectiveness of the Community’s policies on Regional Development. There is, therefore, a common task facing both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic - to improve the economic lot of all our people. A joint Industrial Development Commission could, in particular ,study the development of areas with a natural and common link such as Derry and Donegal, South Down (Newry) and Louth (Dundalk).

31. To remove the political question of the border from the work of administering the region it is imperative that the people of Northern Ireland, rather than the Regional Assembly, must have the sole right to recommend any alteration in the new constitution to the sovereign parliament, in so far as any such alteration might substantially affect the constitutional link with Great Britain.

32. Although the structures advocated in this publication would provide, in our judgement, a substantially better political framework for our community than that obtained under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, it is clear that ultimately neither the law nor the political framework can bring peace, justice or prosperity to all our people. These conditions can only obtain in the ultimate if sufficient citizens have the will and the determination to live at peace with each other. Patently this demands a radical change of heart in many of us and a determination to work for reconciliation and justice through all our institutions - not least the Christian Churches.

 


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