Category Archives: politics
She’s about to have a major encounter with the electorate.
She’s good. We and she are about to discover how good.
Over the next few days newspapers columns will be filled by the more sensational pickings from the annual release of State Papers.
Just remember, though: what we get is what they allow us to know.
One or two are coming along already. Perhaps the most titillating:
That turns out to be no more than a question of whether the flat in Downing Street was a home, or a second home or something entirely different.
And then there is this one:
I hate to say it, but we were close to knowing that already.
The Thatcher-Fitzgerald accord was the moment for lighting the True Blue touch paper and retreating. The Loyalists quickly buried hatchets (not, for once, in each other) and set about raising funds to buy arms. There was the July 1987 raid by Ulster Resistance, the UDA and the UVF on the Northern Bank in Portadown: £325,000 raised. Brian Nelson, who may or (less likely) may not have been also in the paid employ of the Force Research Unit, was despatched to South Africa to blow the kitty. This brought 200 assault rifles, 90 Browning pistols, 500 grenades, 212 RPG7 rocket launchers and 30,000 rounds of ammunition ashore in County Down. Similar buying trips went to Israel and across the European continent.
On 3rd August 1987, the Sunday News had an interview between John Coulter and an unnamed “independence strategist”, which outlined the intents of a group calling itself “the Ulster Movement for Self-Determination” (MSD). The programme would be excluding Dublin and all its works from Northern Ireland, no place for anyone even suspected of republican or nationalist tendencies, security controlled by loyalists, who would also be sealing the Border. Bottom line:
Our goal must be to bring about a completely new situation in this country.
To create a free Ulster for a free people, no longer at the mercy of either Republican terror gangs or appeasing and treacherous English politicians who do not understand us and do not wish to do so.
This same “independence strategist”:
warned that the time was fast approaching in the Loyalist community when Unionists would hire paid-for contract killers to assassinate known Republican “trigger men”.
… Loyalists would have a “slush fund” to pay such hit men in much the same way as gangland bases or Mafia chiefs operated.More likely the hired assassins would be former SAS personnel who had served in Ulster. The Loyalists themselves would compile a dossier on the intended IRA victim and hand it, along with the cash, to the would-be assassin.
Tellingly, the accompanying graphic was a map of the nine counties of Ulster:
While the MSD spokesman outlined that the initial solution to the present Troubles would be found within a Northern Ireland context, he did make a sinister remark about possible encroachments into Éire.
“We want to undo the injustices which were done to our Protestant forefathers when Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were excluded from the original Northern Ireland settlement. We were robbed of our rightful heritage in the 1920s.”
In all truth, the Ulstermen of 1920 couldn’t get rid of the three other counties quick enough. The more thoughtful (yeah: a paradox in connection with those boneheads) even considered dispensing with anything beyond the Bann. What Northern Ireland consisted of was so much — and no more — where a sound Proddy majority existed.
A further moment of interest: a month later John Coulter had the chair of the Ulster Clubs, Alan Wright, named and on the record.
Wright stated that Ian Paisley and Jim Molyneaux were no longer in favour: instead he expressed a preference for Peter Robinson or David Trimble neither of whom was greatly known or appreciated outside the loyalist mindset.
- Robinson was a founder of Ulster Resistance in 1986, and infamously the “Peter Punt” who led the incursion into Clontibret in August 1986.
- Sure enough, in February 1988 Trimble published a pamphlet, What Choice for Ulster?, arguing for independence.
So, if we can now firmly tie Robinson to MSD, is anyone greatly surprised?
In that previous post I found myself saying:
I can just about conceive circumstances in which “Royal Prerogative” might need to be invoked — short of a declaration of War. Say the administration of a devolved Assembly became totally unmanageable …
That post was already over-long, so I omitted the small matter of:
This is an interesting document, because (at the end of the last Labour government) it attempted to identify where the Royal prerogative persisted; and even where it should be going.
Not entirely surprisingly, once Tories are running the show, that script-line gets lost. We haven’t entirely overcome the ancient Royalist and Roundhead cleavage.
One surprise, though, was just how restricted the Prerogative had become:
All of a sudden, it looks “containable”, though there’s an obvious (and very relevant in the context here) quibble in the final sentence there.
When we arrive at the “summary” of the document’s purpose:
to provide an overview of areas where ministerial prerogative powers are exercised, or have been exercised recently
Here again we encounter an account of Prerogative with a particular significance in the #Brexit context:
Happily, on that basis, Messers Boris Johnson, Neil Fox and David Davis (messers all), with Madame May “directing”, can carry on diplomatically. Not that diplomacy seems to have been the name of their recent games.
May be I’m being picky (what’s new?) but then I have to see something awry:
The “Power to make and ratify treaties” doesn’t logically extend to abrogating them.
And that’s what Article 50 does.
Recognise it? Its the indictment against Charles Stuart, 20th January 1648.
Where else to start? In a roundabout way, Paddy Kavanagh springs to mind:
Forget the worm’s opinion too
Of hooves and pointed harrow-pins,
For you are driving your horses through
The mist where Genesis begins.
Those #Brexiteers assured us the UK would enjoy some regeneration, a second “genesis”, after 23rd June. They didn’t bother about the painful details. Now, the worm beneath the harrow is beginning to watch for where the tines will drive.
It also started here. Quite why the commenters on politics.ie should divide between ultra-Kippers and staunch defenders of the British Constitution escapes me. But for 1,700 exchanges (and continuing) they did, and do.
Personally, I was severely affronted by the vulgarity, the xenophobia, the sexism, the violent populism and anti-elitism fomented by the vulgar, xenophobic, sexist, arrogant, elitist tabloid press barons in their spittle-speckled assaults on the High Court of Justice.
But back to first principles:
The whole non-event comes down to a binary simplicity:
- Does the Prime Minister have the right to decide when and what #Brexit means, by exercise of “Royal Prerogative”?
- Is Parliament the essential arbiter?
Those three High Court judges, in their wisdom, endorsed a thousand years of English history, and declared for Parliament.
I doubt there will ever be plaques, with or without bird-turd, outside the Baby Shard (the London bunker from whence Murdoch’s The Sun rises daily), or Northcliffe House in Kensington (ditto the Daily Mail) as the one outside the Roundhouse pub, on Royal Standard Place, in Nottingham:
I laid out my understanding in that previous post.
That left me with the residual issue:
- When might the “Royal Prerogative” ever be invoked?
As I see it, that Elephantine Object in the Newsroom, the “British Constitution”, constrains both:
- Courts (who can only interpret the “Constitution” as a corpus of legislation going back to Norman times) and
- Parliament (which can only act and enact within “constitutional” limits — for example, since the 1911 Parliament Act, the Lords have no powers over money bills, except a one-month delay).
Any amendment to an existing Westminster law would need an amending Act of the Westminster parliament.
We have a balanced — and ever-evolving — settlement between Parliament, devolved Assemblies, and Courts. Still, I can just about conceive circumstances in which “Royal Prerogative” might need to be invoked — short of a declaration of War. Say the administration of a devolved Assembly became totally unmanageable …
Aha! You’re with me already!
Even then we’d need something like a Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act, which imposed Direct Rule from 31st March 1972 to its repeal on 2nd December 1999.
I therefore found myself seeing this as an exercise in speedy parliamentary activity, without use of Royal Prerogative.
A bit of parliamentary history
On 20th March 1972, Harold Wilson, under an emergency notice of 16th March, led an Opposition adjournment motion.
This came after weeks of dithering by the Heath government, and procrastination by the Unionist at Stormont. It was now common ground (except among the extremes of opinion in Northern Ireland, who were up for a local Armageddon). The Dublin government was on the verge of doing something unmentionable.
Wilson, ever the opportunist, would have known that the Heath government was about to act; and wanted to get in on the act. The Opposition had another motive : the need for a distractor. The following week the Chancellor was going to offer a crowd-pleasing budget, as a softener for a General election (which would become the “Barber boom”, and stoke up the inflation that bedevilled British politics for the next decade — but that’s another matter).
After three hours of debate (with Prime Minister Heath responding) the government defeated the motion to adjourn by 257 to 294.
Had that vote been lost, the sitting would have ended abruptly, and Heath would, by convention (another bit of unwritten “Constitution”) have had to return the following session to propose a vote of confidence in his own adminstration. Had that vote of confidence been lost, it would immediately require Heath to go the Palace (another bit of “Constitutional” flim-flam) and resign.
At that moment the Queen would have two choices: to accept the now ex-Prime Minister’s request for a General Election, or to summon the Leader of the Opposition to form a new government (who would then promptly request a General Election, which would be granted).
There then intervened three days of Budget debate.
At this distance in time, we’d need to remind ourselves just how febrile the atmosphere was at that moment. One name in particular should be in the frame: William Craig.
Craig had lost out to the more moderate Brian Faulkner for the leadership of the Unionist Party and the stool-of-office as Northern Irish Prime Minister. He had then built a party-within-the-Unionist-Party, his private Ulster Vanguard movement — which was closely associated with the loyalists and paramilitaries of such as the UDA. Craig held his “monster rallies”, involving motor-cycle outriders, and armed men drawn up in quasi-military ranks. Craig’s speeches at these rallies are quite outrageous:
We must build up dossiers on those men and women in this country who are a menace to this country because one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy.
Note there “this country”: Craig was advocating a Rhodesian-style UDI.
Keeping it parliamentary
On 24th March, Heath was back to the Commons to make a holding statement in advance of the weekend, announcing the bringing back to Westminster of powers over Northern Ireland :
Parliament will, therefore, be invited to pass before Easter a Measure transferring all legislative and executive powers now vested in the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government to the United Kingdom Parliament and a United Kingdom Minister. This provision will expire after one year unless this Parliament resolves otherwise. The Parliament of Northern Ireland would stand prorogued but would not be dissolved.
The weekend out of the way, on 27th March, the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Bill was laid before the House, and given a nominal First Reading.
On 28th March there was a full debate, and division (483-18) on the Second Reading. Willie Whitelaw , as Leader of the Commons and as emollient a creature as the Tories could contain, introduced the Bill with a formula of words worth noting in this context:
I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her interests and prerogative, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
Got that? The “Royal Prerogative” there being made — effectively — subject (if only for this purpose) to the will of parliament. Nearly half a century ago, that must strike as a significant statement. And we have since moved much, much further in claiming democratic accountability through parliament against arbitrary, post-feudal authority.
There was a brief debate on amendments on 29th March (in effect, the “Committee Stage”).
On 30th March all the remaining stages, including the Bill passing the House of Lords, were completed, and at 12.26 pm the Lord Chancellor announced the Royal Assent: it was now an Act of Parliament, subject (see above) to annual review.
After that, interpretation would fall to the Courts.
All done and dusted, with the barest of nods at “Royal Prerogative”.
We have just had one of those moments when everyone brushes up on the English Constitution.
The High Court has pronounced on #Brexit; and dropped a great dollop of whoops-oh-nasty onto the May Government. The May Government will now try to appeal to the Supreme Court. For in law, as no where else, the Siphonaptera applies:
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.
With some small joy, the BBC political editor, Laura Kuenssberg (herself only two generations descent from one of the great Scottish jurists) was relishing that the High Court had cited a precedent from 1610:
27. Sir Edward Coke reports the considered view of himself and the senior judges of the time in The Case of Proclamations (1610) 12 Co. Rep. 74, that
“the King by his proclamation or other ways cannot change any part of the common law, or statute law, or the customs of the realm”
and that :
“the King have no prerogative, but that which the law of the land allows him.”
So, phooey to you, Theresa May and your claims of “prerogative”.
There’s a nice extra bit in quoting Coke on the customs of the realm, because that takes us so far back behind the veil of history.
The Scandinavians, when not on the Viking warpath, were a litigious people and loved to get together in the ‘thing’ to hear legal argument. They had no professional lawyers, but many of their farmer-warriors, like Njal, the truth-teller, were learned in folk custom and in its intricate judicial procedure. A Danish town in England often had, as its main officers, twelve hereditary ‘law men.’ The Danes introduced the habit of making committees among the free men in court, which perhaps made England favorable ground for the future growth of the jury system out of a Frankish custom later introduced by the Normans.
Trevelyan then moves on to remark on Æthelred (the Redeless/ the Unready — yes, him).
That sent me to Maddicott: The Origins of the English Parliament of which a clean, crisp copy I do have here. Because I knew there (on page 37) I would find this:
The turning point came in 1014: a year of disasters in which the victories of the Danish king Swein, culminating in his capture of London, had forced Æthelred to take refuge overseas. What followed set a precedent for future bargaining between kings and councils. Æthelred was recalled from a brief exile in Normandy by ‘all the councillors (þa witan ealle) who were in England’. In advance of his return he promised to be a gracious lord to his people and to reform what they all hated, on condition that they gave him their unqualified allegiance. John of Worcester adds that he also undertook to fall ion with their advice. These terms were clearly imposed by the councillors as the price of Æthelred’s restoration. As Sir Frank Stenton long ago pointed out, they are ‘of great constitutional interest as the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects’.
If anyone is still in doubt: the whole government case for being able to invoke Article 50, without prior parliamentary approval, lies in a claim that the Prime Minister has the residual Crown prerogative.