A Government with no parliamentary representation in Northern Ireland may look as though it has nothing to lose politically if it implements policies that people here will not like – such as cutting the presently scheduled financial provision for the Northern Ireland Government. Perhaps, but what if it could lose in the law courts?
That was the threat made yesterday by Peter Robinson in “the Politics Show.”
Peter Robinson’s case is that when St. Andrews was agreed, the Government made a legal commitment, ostensibly to pump whatever money was required to retain public services. The offending wording is to be found in Annex C of the St. Andrews Agreement, which reads as follows:
“In the context of restoration of the institutions” St Andrews says “the Governments remain committed to ensuring the Executive has the capacity to provide quality public services, to continue the process of necessary reform, to plan for the future, to make the long-term capital investments to underpin the economic transformation of Northern Ireland, as well as bringing long-term benefits for the island as a whole.”
Shortly thereafter, the Government produced its financial package.
If this becomes a legally contentious issue, a Court would be required to try and work out the intention of the parties from the wording of the agreement. Did the Government intend to bind itself legally, over the medium term, to prop up Northern Ireland’s public spending commitments?
As I read it, the words “remain committed to ensuring” are the crucial words. Do they mean the same thing as “will ensure that?” It looks to me more like a snap-shot in time of the Government’s commitment four years ago rather than a longer term commitment.
I would not like to be the lawyer that advises the Government or the Northern Ireland Executive but Peter Robinson is absolutely right to use the legal card in the best interests of Northern Ireland. Whichever way you look at it, the Government will not want the matter to go to court. It looks to me like leverage and it may turn out to be an Ace of trumps in the DUP’s political hand.
This issue also highlights the need for the Conservatives in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to form separate political parties for the regions. Otherwise, one day, we could have Conservative politicians in the Executive facing an exceptionally damaging political conflict of interest.