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HISTORY OF GREAT BRITAIN (from 1707)
 
 


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Devolution in Scotland and Wales: 1978-1999

After much debate a Scotland Act and a Wales Act are passed in 1978, arranging for a referendum in each region. The acts state that regional assemblies will be established if two conditions are met: a simple majority in favour, but also a minimum turnout of 40% of the electorate.

The referenda are held in March 1979. In Scotland there is a small majority in favour, but only 32% of the electorate vote. In Wales there is a large majority (4:1) against the proposed assembly. Later in 1979 a Conservative government wins a general election, beginning a spell in power which lasts for eighteen years. Conservative policy is anti-devolution (though as a gesture the Stone of Scone is returned to Scotland in 1996). So the issue hangs fire - until 1997.
 









'Decentralization of power to Scotland and Wales' is in the party manifesto with which Labour wins an overwhelming victory in the general election of 1997. The pledge is quickly delivered. Within weeks of the election a bill is passed, arranging for referenda to be held. The Scots are to be asked two questions: Do they want a Scottish parliament? Do they want it to have tax-raising powers? The Welsh are only to vote on a single issue, whether they want a Welsh assemby with devolved powers which do not include tax raising.

In a 60.4% turnout the Scots vote 74.3% for a parliament and 63.5% for tax-raising powers. In a 50.3% turnout the Welsh vote by a tiny majority (0.6%) in favour of an assembly.
 







Elections for both assemblies are held in May 1999, on a system of proportional representation. About two thirds of the candidates are returned on a first-past-the-post basis, with the other third added from party lists to achieve the required balance.

In both regions Labour wins the greatest number of seats, while falling short of an absolute majority in either. The second largest vote is in each case for nationalism, with the SNP winning 35 seats in Scotland and Plaid Cymru 17 seats in Wales. The Conservatives come third in both regions, and the Liberal Democrats fourth. But the Liberal Democrats, the most natural allies for Labour, have enough seats to provide a coalition majority in both Scotland and Wales.
 






House of Lords: 1997-1999

In addition to devolution, there is another constitutional commitment in the 1997 Labour manifesto - reform of the house of lords. During the first two years of the parliament there is much negotiation as to how this is to be achieved. The government surprises many by insisting on depriving the hereditary peers of their rights before announcing what shape a reformed house of lords is to take.

A compromise is reached, allowing ninety-two hereditaries (elected by their fellow peers) to remain as members of the house with full voting rights during an interim period until the reform is completed.
 









The election takes place in November 1999, after which the majority of hereditary peers lose their right to participate in the business of the house - ending more than seven centuries of history since the parliaments of Henry III. During recent centuries the lords have been on the whole an obstructive force (over Catholic emancipation, the Reform Bill of 1831-2, Home Rule, the budget of 1909), though the presence since 1958 of appointed life peers has resulted in much more constructive opposition.

Ten years later, the debate over the future composition of the upper house remains unresolved. At issue is how future peers will be appointed, and whether a proportion of them should be elected.
 






Fits and starts at Stormont: from1999

The Northern Irish peace process remains in limbo until the US negotiator George Mitchell returns to try and find common ground between the Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist leaders, Gerry Adams and David Trimble. Their joint efforts end in a breakthrough when both men issue agreed and conciliatory statements on 16 November 1999.

The Ulster Unionists have always said that they will not cooperate with Sinn Fein until the IRA at least begins to hand in its weapons. The next hurdle is for David Trimble to persuade the Ulster Unionist Council that the party should share government with Sinn Fein on the mere promise of this happening. On November 27 he wins this agreement, with the proviso that the party will pull out of government if the IRA fails to hand in any arms by February.
 









On a historic day, 2 December 1999, both sides convene at Stormont and a ten-strong cabinet is selected with David Trimble, leader of the largest party, as First Minister. But the next crisis looms all to soon. By February the IRA has shown no sign of decommissioning any weapons. Well aware of the harm to the peace process if the Unionists withdraw, the British government preempts the issue early in the month by reimposing direct rule from Westminster - while emphasizing that the Stormont executive is being temporarily suspended rather than dismantled.

After quiet diplomacy there is sudden progress again in May, when the IRA put out their most unequivocal statement to date, offering to put their arms 'completely and verifiably beyond use'.
 







Their proposed method is the opening of their arms stores to full and regular inspection by independent observers. The question is whether David Trimble can sell this as significant progress to an increasingly sceptical Ulster Unionist Council. In late May he narrowly succeeds in doing so (by 459 to 403 votes, a closer margin than six months earlier), winning the party's agreement to share power again with Sinn Fein on this new basis. Power is once again transferred from Westminster to Stormont. The Ulster executive at Stormont resumes its devolved work early in June 2000.

There is a similar crisis in 2001, involving even the temporary resignation of David Trimble. Once again, at the last moment, the IRA make new promises just in time. Almost against the odds, political life resumes.
 







Yet another crisis erupts in the autumn of 2002, when there is apparent evidence that a spy working for Sinn Fein or the IRA has been copying top-secret documents from the files of the Stormont administration. David Trimble threatens to take the Unionists out of the government unless Sinn Fein are excluded. Once again the British government decides that the suspension of Stormont is the likeliest way of allowing tempers to cool. Direct rule from Westminster is reimposed.

In spite of this setback both Sinn Fein and the Unionists say that they remain committed to implementing the Good Friday Agreement. There is therefore some hope that the peace process itself remains alive, even if there is silence once again in the corridors of power at Stormont.
 






Hope for the future?

From 1993 the Irish peace process has lurched forward in fits and starts, but real progress has been made. There will be further crises, but the Protestant and Catholic communities have unmistakably expressed a wish for a normal political situation. At the start of the new millennium the mood is more hopeful than at any time since 1969.

But one underlying cause for concern, in the perspective of Irish history, is the tendency of the Irish republican movement to spawn splinter groups which carry on the murderous work of terrorism each time the leaders of the movement decide to enter mainstream politics.
 









This happens in the civil war of 1922; it happens during the time of de Valera, when the IRA continues after its former leader becomes taoiseach; and it happens in 1969 with the emergence of the Provisionals from an IRA by then inclined to renounce terrorism.

In 1999 the pattern seems in danger of repeating itself in the form of the Real IRA, a minority group responsible for placing a bomb in Omagh in August 1998 which causes twenty-nine deaths - within weeks of the Northern Ireland Assembly meeting for the first time at Stormont. Subsequent terrorist acts on the UK mainland suggest that the Real IRA remains a considerable danger.
 







It is also an alarming fact that violence continues to disrupt normal existence in the province. A ferocious feud breaks out in 2000 between rival groups of Protestant paramilitaries (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters) in the Shankhill Road district of Belfast. The level of violence becomes such that troops are brought back on to the streets of the city, in a move welcomed by most of the inhabitants of the Shankhill Road.

And in 2001 Belfast suffers a shocking new outbreak of sectarian violence, with Protestant bigots threatening Catholic children on their route to the Holy Cross school. In 2002 a repeat of this confrontation is followed by riots between sectarian mobs and the temporary closing of the school.
 






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