Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tory Brandon Lewis’ decision to use Westminster powers to direct the Stormont health department to commission more liberal abortion services can be seen as a ‘dry run’ if Scottish devolutionists push too hard for a second independence referendum.
The worst case scenario is that the Johnston Government in London faces the prospect of devolution ‘going off the rails’ politically in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.
North of the English border, the sixth Scottish parliamentary elections are scheduled for 6th May with the Scottish National Party aiming to not just maintain its grip in the chamber, but also use the election result as a potential springboard for a second independence referendum.
The SNP goes into the elections with 61 MSPs - four short of an outright majority in the 65-seat parliament. However, the political fallout between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former SNP heavyweight Alex Salmond has the potential to derail the SNP’s bid for outright power - and even threaten the very credibility of Scottish devolution.
In the Northern Ireland, the potential crisis facing devolution is equally as severe given the ongoing rows over the impact of the Protocol and the border in the Irish Sea.
There has been much sabre-rattling from the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), the body which represents the views of the mainstream loyalist terror gangs in Northern Ireland concerning pro-Union opposition to the Protocol.
The LCC maintains the loyalist gangs have temporarily withdrawn their support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ushered in the peace process and the return of devolution in the form of the current Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.
While the LCC has stressed that such Protocol opposition should be “peaceful and democratic”, the unease within sections of militant and dissident loyalism should not be dismissed.
Already there have been calls for the main Unionist party, the DUP, to walk away from Stormont and ‘collapse’ devolution once again. Even the pro-life lobby is calling on pro-life MLAs to walk out of the Assembly and the Stormont Executive. Could devolved government in Northern Ireland fall between the pillars of the Protocol and abortion?
There is much suspicion the Westminster Government is already preparing contingency plans for such an event. After all, the DUP’s power-sharing partner at Stormont, Sinn Fein, collapsed devolution in 2017, leading to a three-year gap in the operation of the devolved administration. It was only the coronavirus pandemic which forced a return of devolution last year.
One key Westminster department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has already said it will shortly recruit a small number of civil servants to be based in Northern Ireland.
This move prompted one Stormont Executive minister, Nichola Mallon of the moderate nationalist SDLP, to question if this was an example of Westminster “dismantling devolution”.
Then came the shock announcement from Secretary of State Lewis that he intended to use new regulations in Parliament to allow him as Secretary of State to direct the Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann’s department to commission abortion services.
While at face value, Secretary of State Lewis has been keen to stress the abortion move was prompted by concerns that many women are still travelling from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain to access services, the new powers can also be seen as Westminster preparing for devolution collapsing should the pro-life DUP or others walk out of Stormont, either over the Protocol or abortion rights.
Clearly, the Westminster Government does not want to be caught in a similar situation as that in 1974 when the Unionist parties and loyalist paramilitaries combined to bring down the then power-sharing Sunningdale Executive involving the SDLP and moderate Unionists.
It was the might of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike which crippled Northern Ireland in 1974, thus ending Sunningdale and the re-introduction of Direct Rule from Westminster.
The gamble which the Unionist parties currently face over their opposition to the Protocol is that if they are unable to get the Protocol axed, voters will punish them at the polls in the next Assembly elections scheduled for May 2022.
The Unionist parties’ only alternative if a legal challenge to overturn the Protocol did not work, would be to either make it work as best as possible - or collapse Stormont and end devolution again.
Then again, did the Johnston Government agree to the Protocol simply to make it unworkable as a way of giving a political ‘two fingers’ to Brussels and the EU in general?
However, it may not be Direct Rule which Westminster would opt for in governing Northern Ireland, but instead some form of joint authority along with the Irish government in Dublin.
Such a precedent for this exists as in 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by the then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allowed the Dublin administration to have a say in the running of Northern Ireland for the first time since the partition of the island in the 1920s.
With Northern Ireland celebrating the centenary of its formation this year, there is real concern among many in the pro-Union community that the Protocol could be used - either by Westminster or the EU - to ease Northern Ireland into some form of economic Irish unity.
Likewise, if the 6th May elections in Scotland returned another massive surge for the SNP, could Westminster use the same powers as it is currently implementing in Northern Ireland to curb the tide of Scottish nationalism.
Similarly, is there the possibility the Sturgeon/Salmond rift could cause the SNP to implode to such a degree that a future Edinburgh parliament became so politically unstable that it required Westminster to ‘step in’ and restore order?
Should either scenario emerge in Scotland after the 6th May poll, Westminster would already have used the benchmark of Northern Ireland as a ‘dry run’ for controlling the direction of devolution, not just in Northern Ireland, but also in Scotland.
However, unlike Scotland, the ‘elephant in the room’ in Northern Ireland remains the impact, if any, by the loyalist terror gangs.
Then again, the collapse of devolution in both parts of the UK could result in campaigns off civil disobedience, which in the teeth of trying to control the spread of the pandemic would require Westminster to give tough new policing powers to both the Northern Ireland and Scottish Offices.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at http://radio.garden/listen/sunshine-104-9fm/tBZsuX1o