28 APRIL 1961, Page 17

Offshore Counties

By JOHN COLE FORTY years ago six unwilling counties of Ulster were given a Parliament they did not want Today, it is accepted as being as essential a fruit of the eccentric laws of nature as the basaltic enormities of the Giant's Causeway. It has become as difficult for Ulstermen of my generation—born 1927—to think of a world without Stormont as it is for us to conceive Ireland as it was before 1921. Yet on compiling a balance sheet of the advantages and dis- advantages Of that Parliament's existence, I believe we find ourselves deeply in the red.

In my lifetime, almost all the agitation for the abolition of the Northern Ireland legislature has come from those who oppose the division of Ireland. Their inducements to the Six Counties to join the twenty-six in the Republic have ranged from a straight appeal to a national senti- ment which the majority in the North do not share, to the conviction, based on highly specula- tive economic reasoning, that the gods would shower riches beyond the dreams of avarice on a united Ireland. My guess, after living for five years in England, is that this view is accepted almost unquestioningly by a majority of liberal- minded Englishmen. I believe that in this they are both wrong and false to their own criteria of judgment.

It is a hoary subject, however, and of less practical importance than an examination of what Ulster has gained and lost through the devolution of powers from Westminster and Whitehall. If history had not played her cheat, could Ulster have had forty happier and more prosperous years under the direct rule of the British Parliament, in which she is represented?

That devolution has brought some advantages cannot be denied. I only faintly remember the tag-end of 'the Troubles'- the riots in the Belfast of the mid-Thirties--but I imagine the very existence of their own Government at Stormont helped Ulster people of the generation which lived through the Home Rule controversy to recover from that trauma.

And whether for this reason or for others. Northern Ireland remains a community. identi- fiable and comprehensible, in a way which few English regions do. Englishmen who shudder at the thought of the deep religious division rarely understand the compensating homogeneousness until they have lived in Ulster--and then many of them find it hard to leave. The sea and politics have set limits and provided a reasonably-sized administrative unit. What prodigies of post-war planning could have been done in such a neat parcel of territory if the Northern Ireland Gov- ernment had had the stomach for it! In spite of the chances that have been missed, however, solid administrative advantages remain. The Ministry of Agriculture provides imaginative leadership which remains realistic through its proximity to the led. Decisions on transport and roads are taken by people near enough to be personally affected. Health service administration is nearer the grass-roots.

But set against this is the Ulster Government's great failure. which to my mind outweighs all the rest. The province has had a level of un- employment throughout these forty years which has always been serious, and which at the present time stands at 7.3 per cent., compared with 1.5 per cent. in Great Britain. When all the economic excuses have been made. this remains primarily a result of the ambivalent position in which the Government of Ireland Act left the Stormont legislature. To adapt Baldwin's famous epigram on the press lords, the Ulster Government has enjoyed responsibility without power, the prero- gative of the henpecked of every age.

Since the war, at least, it has not been indolent about unemployment. By calling its wares in the British and American marketplaces, both in the industrial promotion efforts of its Ministry of Commerce and more recently through a Develop- ment Council, and by a seemingly unending programme of industrial subsidies, Stormont has helped to create 40,000 new jobs since 1945, with another 14,500 'in the pipeline.' But it has never looked like catching up with the birthrate and creating 'full employment' to a British standard. Governments at Westminster have made all the sympathetic noises imaginable and have wearily authorised the subsidies (for which British Treasury permission is needed), but have never taken an anxious interest in an area for which they bore little direct economic responsibility.

I have known several British Ministers whose supposed special interest in Ulster has been advertised by their opposite numbers in Belfast and who have shown a total ignorance of the elementary details of its problems. The most public example was when Mr. Macmillan wrongly congratulated the Northern Ireland Government on establishing a Development Council. At that time it was refusing to do so. Patently, what the British Government has needed is a parliamentary ginger group to remind it of the existence of high unemployment in Northern Ireland. But politically this is the for- gotten corner of the United Kingdom.

It returns twelve MPs to Westminster, of whom ten are always Unionists, and the other two occasionally semi-abstentionist Nationalists., The latter have never had any significance, and the Unionists have conceived their role to be an almost total subservience to the Conservative Party whip. None has ever risen above PPS level, and the general image of the group at Westmin- ster is a faceless one indeed.

The reason is obvious. The most able Unionist politicians set their eyes on Stormont, with a Ministry as the prize at the end of the day (or perhaps earlier, for the competition lately has not been too fierce). It is usually the second-best who go to London. often men whose business interests make residence there convenient, and who are not so deeply immersed in Ulster politics that they mind being away from its apparent centre of power at Stormont.

If Stormont were the centre of real power, this would not matter. But inevitably that power is limited 'Step by step,' the Unionists' well-tried election slogan. means to most people that social services, and notably unemployment benefit, must be kept at British levels, even though they arc locally administered. There are re-insurance arrangements between the National Insurance funds of the Iwo areas to cover this, and taxation, therefore, must remain at broadly the same level. This leaves the Ulster Budget as a flaccid measure. which cannot be used to control the economy.

Is this an argument for fiscal freedom, for turning Ulster into yet another of the British offshore islands, with low taxation, socially under- developed and politically obscurantist? There are strong enough forces driving in some of these directions already. For my part, direct rule from Westminster again seems a more logical solution. The fact that it will never happen only makes it more interesting to daydream about the conse- quences.