Social security parity in Northern Ireland: developing constitutional principles through firefighting?

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Van Caenegem (2009) asks whether constitutions result from “chance or grand design,” identifying the UK’s uncodified constitution as an example of the former. This paper will use the example of the governance of social security in Northern Ireland to demonstrate how, even when a written constitutional act is in place, responses to unforeseen developments can gain a constitutional or quasi-constitutional force not necessarily envisaged at the time. Specifically, its focus is on how the UK government’s bail-out of the Northern Ireland unemployment insurance fund in the 1920s established the principle of parity of social security provision between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The result of this development has been that the latter’s status as the only UK region with devolved control of social security has in practice been almost meaningless: almost no policy divergence has occurred despite increasing concern since the early 1980s that this may mean the adoption in Northern Ireland of an approach less well fitted to the region’s circumstances than to those of Great Britain. The paper argues that the different treatment of social security in Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement compared to those for Scotland and Wales is largely a result of historical timing, the allocation of devolved competences dating from 1914 as opposed to 1998. It goes on to examine reasons – both fiscal and those linked to the ideology of the unionist government of the 1920s – for the emergence and entrenchment of the parity principle and considers arguments as to how well parity has served Northern Ireland. Finally, it concludes with a brief discussion of the prospects of parity, and the common approach to social security in the UK as a whole, being eroded as the 1998 devolution settlement evolves.
Period4 Sept 2013
Event titleSociety of Legal Scholars Conference 2013
Event typeConference
LocationEdinburgh, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • social security
  • devolution
  • northern ireland
  • social rights
  • social citizenship
  • constitutional conventions