What is the purpose of power-sharing without power? By any reckoning the Northern Ireland Executive is largely powerless – it possesses almost none of the powers that a normal 'executive' branch of a government possesses. It is, to all extents and purposes, a puffed-up County Council that has been given the superficial trappings of a government but none of the powers. The same is true of the Assembly – it has all of the trappings of a 'parliament' and uses all the jargon and archaic procedures, but ultimately it has no power to speak of, because its scope for legislation is as constricted as the Executive's scope for implementation.
What kinds of powers would a real government and parliament have?
Well, it is often argued that fundamental purpose of government is the maintenance of basic security and public order. But the Northern Irish 'government' has no power whatsoever in these areas – although control of the police may soon be devolved, to date it has not been. The other branches of 'security'; military, intelligence, coastguard, border controls, and so on, will continue to remain strictly out of Northern Irish hands.
Other areas of government power usually include fiscal policy, economic policy, social security, healthcare, the environment and education. But in most of these the Executive has little or no power. It has no tax-raising powers at all, apart from setting a 'regional rate', and is entirely dependent on London for decisions on income tax, corporation tax, VAT, road taxes, and so on. It therefore lacks control over one of the most basic tools of economic policy.
Not only does it lack the power, but it also lacks responsibility. Northern Ireland receives from London a block grant that covers the majority of public expenditure (over 90%). No matter how well or badly Northern Ireland performs, that block grant does not vary significantly, so the Executive is not under any particular pressure to ensure that the economy is actually generating the revenue needed to finance its spending.
On the 'big-ticket' items like health, social welfare and education Executive Ministers have discretion to allocate the resources received according to their assessment of local needs and priorities, but the overall amount is nonetheless limited by the contribution from London. The Executive merely repositions the deckchairs – it cannot even decide how many there should be.
Overall, then, the picture is one of a 'government' that does not control its constitution, its defence, its internal security, its justice and legal systems, its broadcasting systems, its fiscal and economic policies or its foreign policies; it cannot make treaties or enter into international agreements; it has no separate or independent representation in the Council of the EU, nor does it have a European Commissioner, judges in the European Court, or members of some other EU bodies; and it is entirely subject to the control of another external authority (the British government). The overwhelming majority of its laws come from outside Northern Ireland – either from Brussels or from London.
This, then, is the 'power' that is being shared!
So what is it for? Why is there a 108 member Assembly, and a 12 member Executive, along with ridiculous numbers of staff, and obscene levels of expense, in order to basically tinker around the edges of health and education expenditure?
The simplistic answer (though not necessarily the wrong one) is that it is all part of a pay-off, designed to provide the key figures in each of the warring groups with positions of prestige and personal enrichment. This is the old-fashioned British approach to governing 'the colonies' – divide and buy off the natives. There is nothing that defuses resistance quicker than a pay-cheque and a ministerial limousine. Part of the sordid bribery of the natives is the construction of elaborate facades that mimic real power and authority but are essentially hollow. So it seems to be in Northern Ireland – the 'natives' are persuaded to accept their subordinate position by being given fancy titles ('First Minister', 'Minister for whatever', and so on) and inflated salaries. The British media, particularly the BBC, play along with the charade by giving inordinate airtime to these toy-town functionaries, and by helping to give the impression to the ordinary folk that the façade contains substance, when they know it doesn't.
A more cynical explanation (though this blog hopes it is the correct one) is that the charade is a deliberate training exercise. If the British and the unionists truly think that Northern Ireland will remain in the UK 'for the foreseeable future', then the only logical system of governance is direct rule. Setting up a play-government may, however, be a way in which the British are preparing Northern Ireland for what Britain knows is coming – withdrawal followed by Irish reunification. A generation of toy-town 'government' may ingrain in the powerless power-sharers at least an understanding of the processes of government, so that when they sit down with their fellow Irishmen and women to work out the structures of the new Irish state, they will at least be familiar with the language.