Ireland, Northern Ireland Democracy, devolution and governance, Housing and planning

Ireland 2040: An island of regions?

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Credit: Ed Jackson on iStock

As work advances on the renewal of the National Planning Framework and underpinning revision to the National Development Plan in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland is now seeing the return to its Assembly, and local political leadership is once again back, largely, at the helm of delivering badly needed public service improvement. A hugely challenging environment confronts the new administration in Northern Ireland with much expectation of improvement in person-centred service delivery across the jurisdiction. A lot of people have their hopes pinned on the transformation of public service reconfiguration in Northern Ireland and in that there will be lessons for political counterparts in the Republic.

As recent briefings published by the LGIU demonstrate, Ireland’s local political platforms have been subject to critical analysis at the Council of Europe level and also with the publication of the AILG’s excellent research on the role of the 21st century councillor. Ireland has one of the most underdeveloped local and regional structures in the Council of Europe, and it is apparent that there is limited appetite for substantive reform of such structures on the part of national government. Forthcoming local elections give little indication of change by way of commitment towards any sort of overhaul, even allowing for the election of an executive mayor of sorts in Limerick.

As for the role of the regions in Ireland, well, at best, it is minimalist when contrasted with such structures in places such as Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. There is little evidence that this is likely to change and even less indication of any future commitment to change, so that a rebalancing of the local to regional to national interface might be in the offing.

Will this ever change?

Strange as it might seem, perhaps the time is coming when the governance of Ireland – the Island, as distinct from the political entity – will need consideration. Much has been written about the prospects of a border poll, given the dramatic shifts occurring in Northern Ireland. Some have even begun to think that some form of a new constitutional arrangement will need to be developed for the now separate jurisdictions on the Island of Ireland. While the prospects of such a poll in the immediate term, i.e., the term of office of the next government in the Republic, might be a stretch, well, maybe in the next 10 to 20 years, it might become a possible reality. Were such a poll to pass, no small ask, even if it seems a majority of people under 45 in Northern Ireland might be minded to such an eventuality, what then?

Having witnessed, indeed, been a part of many vain efforts to advance local and regional government reconfiguration in the Republic over the past 30 years, and seeing how slow this can be, maybe if an incoming government is minded towards reflecting on a new constitutional arrangement that involves some form of unification between the two jurisdictions, they might want to think through the implications of such re-configuration.

If the Assembly and its government prove a success, something which everyone would hope for, it is hard to see any new constitutional arrangements which would not allow the continuation of much of the powers of a re-constituted assembly covering what is now Northern Ireland and perhaps the three counties of Ulster in the Republic, Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan. In such an event, the Island would be moving towards a federal government arrangement. But what of the now Republic of Ireland?

Moving to a new federal model where Northern Ireland becomes Ulster, including the three above counties, leaving the rest of the Republic unchanged is surely unlikely. Would a Greater Dublin with a population of several million and a bigger economy than Northern Ireland, under a possible directly elected Mayor, tolerate a situation where the new federal capital would play a more junior and limited role in its governance when up the road its new constitutional colleague retains the powers of education, economic development, policing, housing, and health? What about the rest of Leinster? Not to mention Munster, one of Europe’s richest and fastest growing regions, which in the next two-plus decades will see European cities of scale in Cork and Limerick. Where would Connaught rest with its European city of scale in Galway and potentially Sligo or Athlone and the urban triangle of Castlebar-Ballina and Westport?

Herein rests a moment of potential opportunity, and before anyone thinks that having a federal constitutional government with five possible regions would be excessive, well, it’s a model which is already working elsewhere, more than successfully, across the OECD and beyond.

So, what if all the powers of education, health, transport, etc. are removed from a new island-wide federal arrangement to rest within a newly renewed regional governance model that can trace a lineage back to pre-Norman times? Funnily enough, countries as diverse as Denmark, Austria, etc., happen to manage with national governments that are focused on national and international concerns, leaving person centred issues back at the local and regional levels. Those governments, some federal and others unitary, manage to be responsible for defence and security, foreign affairs, national financing and tax policy, providing oversight of national standards in person-centred services – something largely missing in Ireland.

It would, of course, mean that federal politicians could not be local or even regional politicians. Out would go the prospect of inviting federal politicians to launch local policies and plans, currently a unique Irish feature of governance in the OECD.

So, perhaps, in light of possible consideration of a new governance model for the island of Ireland, it might now be time to start thinking that if there is to be some sort of constitutional framework that sustains a re-imagined Northern Ireland or even Ulster within a federal Ireland, that the same has to become a feature of the debate about a future Ireland across the Island?

An Ireland of regions perhaps?

As I know, 20 years is not that long, it just goes so quickly and maybe, therefore, some people who think about these things might do so. Or is that too much to even expect?



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