Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - an overview

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a long, fascinating and complex history containing considerable political struggle over many issues.  It a subject that the serious student of constitutional law will need to examine.  This article seeks to outline how the United Kingdom has developed and an introduction to the legislative bodies in the UK.

The title United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - commonly abbreviated to United Kingdom or UK - informs us that the UK is a Monarchy and that it comprises Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Great Britain is the combination of England, Wales and Scotland.

The term "British Islands” means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.  This is not considered further here.

H.M. Queen Elizabeth II

The Head of State for the United Kingdom is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  The Monarchy has existed continually since its Restoration in 1660.  There was an Interregnum from 30th January 1649 (execution of Charles I) until 29th May 1660.

Prior to the interregnum there was a long history of Monarchy but this is not traced further here other than to note that the Crowns of England/Wales and Scotland united in 1603 in the person of James VI of Scotland / James I of England (1566-1625).

The Monarchy holds a number of legal powers which will be examined in a later article.  In practice, these powers are exercised on the advice of Ministers of the Crown.

For example, Her Majesty appoints the Prime Minister who then forms Her Majesty's Government.  It is in areas such as this where constitutional conventions play an important role.  The convention is that the Queen would appoint the person best able to command a majority in the House of Commons.

A further example is that Royal Assent is required before a Bill which has passed all its stages through Parliament can become law.   The constitutional convention appears to be that Royal Assent is not refused but the requirement for it continues to emphasise the nature of the constitutional monarchy.  It is an interesting point whether there could be any circumstances in which Her Majesty could refuse Royal Assent.

Great Britain:

The UNION of England and Wales with Scotland dates from the Acts of Union 1707.   From 1 May 1707 and for ever after, the kingdoms of Scotland and England were to be "united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain".  The people of Great Britain were to be represented by one parliament, known as the Parliament of Great Britain.

Parliament of the UK:

Parliament of the UK

The Parliament of the United Kingdom is the supreme law-making authority for the UK.  The concept of Parliamentary Sovereignty is discussed more fully in the post of 6th August.  In recent years there has been devolution of law-making over certain matters to Scotland, to Wales and also to Northern Ireland.  Each has its own devolution settlement.  This devolution has come about because of Acts of the UK Parliament.

National Assembly for Wales

England and Wales:

England and Wales have had the same legal system since the reign of Henry VIII - see Laws in Wales Acts (or, as they came to be later called, Acts of Union).  Since 1999 there has been a gradual increase in law applicable only to Wales and this has developed under devolution arrangements by which the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government have specified powers. 

The National Assembly for Wales was created by the Government of Wales Act 1998 (as enacted) and today it is the democratically elected body representing the interests of Wales and its people.  It makes laws for Wales and holds the Welsh Government to account.

At first, the Assembly and the Executive operated as one and law-making powers were limited to the making of secondary legislation only when authorised by the UK Parliament.  The Government of Wales Act 2006 (GoWA) formally separated the executive from the legislature and gave the Assembly powers to make laws in defined areas.

GOWA 2006 originally gave the National Assembly the power to pass Assembly Measures in respect of certain matters. Assembly Measures have the status of primary legislation, like Acts of Parliament.

Schedule 5 to GOWA 2006 set out the matters in respect of which the National Assembly could pass Measures. Although there were a relatively small number of matters in Schedule 5 when GOWA 2006 was passed, more were added by later UK legislation.

Twenty two Assembly Measures were passed between 2007 and 2011, including the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 and the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. Assembly Measures retained their legal effect and status after the Assembly gained the power to pass Assembly Acts.

GOWA 2006 also gave the National Assembly the power to pass Assembly Acts, but only after there had been a “Yes” vote by the people of Wales in a referendum on the matter. This referendum took place in 2011. Assembly Acts also have the status of primary legislation but can relate to a wider range of subjects than was permitted for Assembly Measures. These subjects are set out in Schedule 7 to GOWA 2006.

More information on Welsh legislation is at Law Wales and also see The History of Welsh Devolution published by the National Assembly.

Interestingly, under the Fourth Welsh Assembly (2011-16), 28 new Acts received Royal Assent and will make significant changes in education, planning, social services, housing and local government.

The devolution arrangements will change as a result of the Wales Act 2017.

Scottish Parliament

The Scotland Act 1998  created the Scottish Parliament and a Scottish Executive.  (Note: On 2nd September 2007 the term Scottish Government came to be preferred but the name was not legally changed to Scottish Government until the Scotland Act 2012 section 12 - in force on 3rd July 2012).  Power to make laws is devolved to the Scottish Parliament but it must have legislative competence to do so - see Scotland Act 1998 section 29.

The Scotland Act 2016 has increased the powers available to Scotland.

In September 2014, the Scottish people voted in a referendum and answered NO to the question - Should Scotland become an independent country.

In the EU referendum of 2016, Scotland voted in favour of remaining in the EU.  At the time of writing this is already bringing about demands for a further independence referendum.

The Scottish government is also strongly committed to the European Convention on Human Rights

Northern Ireland:
Northern Ireland Assembly

History -

There is a long, complex and, at times, tragic history behind both the development of government within Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations generally.

The Union between Great Britain and Ireland commenced on 1st January 1801 under the Act of Union 1800.  The Government of Ireland Act 1920 created separate Parliaments for "Southern Ireland" and "Northern Ireland."  Northern Ireland was defined by the Act as the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone and also the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry.

In December 1921 the Irish Free State came about and, from 18th April 1949, the Republic of Ireland - Ireland Act 1949.  Thereafter, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom and continued with its own Parliament based at Stormont, Belfast.  See - Ireland becomes a Republic.

On 24th March 1972, "Direct Rule" was imposed on Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972 - the reasons for this are discussed at Re-introduction of Direct Rule in Northern Ireland.

Devolution -

The Northern Ireland Assembly came into being as a result of the Belfast Agreement of 10th April 1998 (the "Good Friday" agreement) and it has replaced the previous Northern Ireland Parliament. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 repealed the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and gave the Assembly devolved powers to legislate for Northern Ireland.  Section 1 of this Act is very important in that it declares that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll.

The early years of the Assembly were punctuated by a number of "suspensions" of the Assembly - for example on 11th February 2002 it was suspended (under powers on the Northern Ireland Act 2000) and this suspension lasted until 30th May 2000.  There have been a number of further suspensions but, since 8th May 2007 the Assembly has continued to perform its role.  For a fuller history see NI Assembly History.

The Assembly has considerable legislative powers but some "excepted" matters remain fully the responsibility of the UK Parliament.  Some matters are "reserved" so that the Assembly may legislative with the consent of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. 

At the time of writing (August 2016) the devolution arrangements for Northern Ireland appear to be working well on the whole but there have been a number of concerns.  For example, in October 2015 it was reported that a return to direct rule could be a possibility if disagreements over certain paramilitarism and welfare reform could not be achieved - The Guardian 7th October 2015.

Northern Ireland has a unique model of coalition government - see Northern Ireland Executive. It is a system designed to guarantee power-sharing between representatives from different sections of the community. 

The Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 placed considerable emphasis on human rights within Northern Ireland.  This is entirely to be expected given the history of Northern Ireland, particularly since the 1960s.  The British Conservative government under Prime Minister David Cameron had a policy to introduce a British Bill of Rights and they did not rule out withdrawal of the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights.  In July 2016 a new Conservative government was created under Prime Minister Theresa May and its stance on human rights remains to be seen.  At this point we can observe that alteration of the human rights settlement for Northern Ireland could be a very risk step to take politically.

Another issue will be the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event that the UK finally leaves the European Union and, in that event, the UK will have, for the first time, a land border with the EU.  The Republic of Ireland will remain in the European Union but Northern Ireland might leave despite the fact that it voted to Remain in the 2016 EU referendum.  This will be a difficulty which should not be underestimated and it is one which hardly affected the minds of voters outside Northern Ireland.   


House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution - May 2016 - Report on Union and Devolution

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