The history of these isles, which we call Great Britain and Ireland, has produced a peculiar and unique situation of governance throughout the nations of which the islands consist. England, as largest and most populous territory in the region, has been the dominant power for centuries; annexing or merging with the Celtic nations of Wales, Scotland and Ireland between 1536 and 1800. Following the independence of the Irish Free State and partition of the island of Ireland, we have the country that is known today as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as well as the independent Irish Republic. Over the course of this essay I will examine the different levels of devolution to be found within Britain and Ireland, identifying similarities and differences between the types of devolution granted at present as well as possibilities for further devolution of power.
Within the United Kingdom, power has been devolved from Westminster to the outlying capitals of Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff in different ways, according to a region’s particular characteristics and idiosyncrasies. However devolution, described as “a limited form of decentralisation” (Grant, 2009), has been seen as giving power over their own affairs back to the people of each of the smaller nations, who in many cases may have felt some sense of marginalisation by rule from London. This being the case, there are certainly aspects of devolved power which have been granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with little variance. Administrative devolution has occurred in all three territories, with local government being given authority over running services, allocating funds and organising administration. Practically this means that areas such as Health, Education, Housing and other areas are equally the domain of each outlying government throughout the UK. With this fact acknowledged, one can then examine other “devolved government arrangements … that are markedly asymmetrical” (Jeffrey & Wincott, 2006).
Of the three nations with devolved powers at present, Wales is the one which has least expressed desires for separation or independence; this despite a strong sense of Welsh cultural and national pride, with the flourishing Welsh language as a focal point and a Welsh nationalist party in Plaid Cymru. Indeed the 1997 devolution referendum in Wales, pushed by the Labour government, was passed by a mere 7,000 votes, with only 50% voter turnout. The tiny margin of victory despite government support along with the low turnout figures suggests an antipathy, certainly at the time of the referendum, amongst the Welsh electorate towards the idea of self-governance and devolution. This fact, along with the view that Wales as a nation is most inextricably linked with England, has resulted in Wales agreeing to a low level of devolution with the Welsh Assembly. The sixty member Welsh Assembly which was set up in the wake of the 1997 referendum has been described as a “strange anatomy” (Rawlings, 2003). The Assembly has control over the spending and allocation of the Welsh budget, as handed down by Westminster, but with no taxation or primary law-making powers (Grant, 2009). However, the introduction of devolution in Wales does seem to have reinvigorated the public debate over transfer of powers. By 2003, the preferred option (38% from four options) amongst the Welsh people was clearly for more devolution powers, in the form of a Welsh Parliament (Wales, 2006). Scotland has achieved a different, more extensive form of devolution than Wales; not least due to the fact that it is much bigger physically and in terms of population as well as being further geographically removed from London. However the rise of support in Scotland for a devolved form of administration in the 1980s and 1990s coincided with a...