In the case of Buick, the Northern Ireland High Court explored whether government departments can continue to operate as normal in the absence of ministers due to the collapse of the devolved administration in Belfast. It reached a striking conclusion which, if upheld on appeal, would have significant constitutional and practical implications. It was mistaken.
The United Kingdom is currently engaged in an experiment in political anarchism. For over a year, it has been exploring what happens when one part of the country, in this case Northern Ireland, is required to carry on without an elected government.
The experiment arose inadvertently, and on the surface very little has changed. Belfast 2018 is not the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Barcelona 1936, nor has it suddenly lapsed into a Hobbesian state of nature. But the very reason why hardly anything appears to be different – the continuity that is provided by the de facto technocratic government of the Northern Ireland Civil Service – gives rise to constitutional questions of real importance. The most fundamental question is this: can day-to-day government be carried on by civil servants without the need for direction or control by politicians; if so, subject to what conditions and within what parameters?
It was only a matter of time before this question fell to be considered in a court of law. And it has been, in the recent case of Buick  NIQB 43, in which the High Court was asked to determine whether Northern Ireland’s ten government departments are able to carry on without ministers in charge. It came to a surprising and unintentionally radical conclusion.
Referendums present us with apparently simple choices, but the binary nature of the questions they ask masks layers of complexity. Their outcomes are shaped by votes cast with a wide range of motivations, many unrelated to the issue on the ballot paper. They attract protest voting. And they are incapable of answering the follow-on questions to which their results inevitably give rise.
The EU referendum was no exception to these rules. Unpicking the strands which account for the Brexit vote will take time and careful analysis. When the history is written, it will be shown to have multiple and complex causes.
However, this complexity should not be an excuse for ignoring what is already obvious and requires no further study. Some things really are quite simple. The pattern of voting tells its own clear story.
This is that while the referendum question was about the EU, the result reveals less about Europe than it does about the nature of the constitutional arrangements within the UK itself. These, especially in England, are fundamentally unfit for purpose.
The outcome of the referendum was forged not in Brussels, but in London.
Continue reading London, the Centralisation of Power, and the Causes of Brexit
Each year, at least 1000 young women, but perhaps as many as twice that number, travel from Northern Ireland to another part of the United Kingdom in search of an abortion. They do so to avoid the criminal liability that (in most cases) still attaches to terminations of pregnancy in Northern Ireland, and to rely instead on the more liberal legal regime prevailing in England, Scotland and Wales.
Should they be entitled to obtain abortions free on the National Health Service?
The answer to this question, which was considered by the Court of Appeal in A (a child) v Secretary of State for Health, reveals the full extent to which, under the UK’s devolution settlement, the disaggregation of the NHS into four discrete health services – one for each of the four constituent territories* of the United Kingdom – is now legally entrenched. By implication, it also asks important questions about the effect of future devolution within England.
Continue reading A v Secretary of State for Health – The NHS, Devolution and Human Rights