The Parliamentary Select Committee meeting was well attended on Friday - which was unusual.
Ranil, Choksy, Hameed, Ronnie ,Tyronne, G. L Peiris, Bernard Soysa, Kadirgamar, Rauf Hakeem, Galappathy, Ravi Karunanayke....... The members of the five Tamil party alliance who went before the PSC to present their case on devolution were impressed.
At a time when they had begun to feel that a general apathy among southern politicians was pushing the current Parliamentary Select Committee down the drain, the turn out on Friday was surely some encouragement, though no one among them is yet prepared to become an optimist on account of it.
However, there was an important development at this meeting.
Mr. Choksy, the UNP's constitutional expert , told the Committee that it was possible to ensure the extent of devolution which is considered essential to make a solution viable by amending Articles 2 and Article 76 .
His suggestion is very interesting if it reflects a fundamental shift in the UNP's approach to the devolution debate. Ronnie de Mel who at the last meeting of the PSC alarmed Tamil politicians by saying that his party would not support any attempt to change the unitary nature of the constitution did not comment on Mr. Choksy's suggestion.
The discussion as usual had begun on the question of the unit which still remains an impasse. The Tamil parties insist that the northeast should be the territorial basis for any devolution of power. The Muslims - in the UNP as well as of the SLMC - keep saying that their interests should be taken into consideration but are yet to come up with any concrete suggestion.
The UNP does not want to make a definite commitment on the issue, although its members argue strongly against the merger, because it seems to have taken a lesson from the past to heart.
The support of the Tamil parties which Mr. Premadasa had been at great pains to cultivate crumbled the day he told a delegation of Tamil leaders led by Kumar Ponnambalam that the UNP was committed to the concept of the northern and eastern provinces as separate units.
This time the UNP's prevarication on the fundamental questions of the devolution debate might very well turn out to be a boon to the Tamil parties particularly on the issues of the unit and the unitary nature of the constitution.
It is a boon in that the equivocation might , at some juncture, make the party leadership acquiesce at the continuation of the temporary merger and agree to some form of substantial amendment to Articles 2 and 76.
As it was apparent on Friday, the UNP faces a quandary in trying to cut a subtle middle path between the unitary nature of the constitution and the extent of devolution which, it seems to think, should meet at least the reasonable aspirations of the Tamil parties.
By setting up the Mangala Moonesinghe committee the UNP acknowledged in principle that the Tamils and Muslims should have a greater quantum of autonomy than what was granted them under the Indo-Lanka Accord.
The UNP's quandary may be stated thus: It does not object to the principle that at least some degree of legislative power is necessary to make devolution work - in other words that without real legislative power a regional council would be nothing more than a trussed-up local government body.
But Article 76 which was written into the 1978 constitution to give teeth to Article 2 stipulates Parliament shall not abdicate or in any manner alienate its legislative power, and shall not set up any authority with any legislative power.
No devolution plan would be viable as long as Article 76 is in place.
All the powers of equivocation cannot help the UNP wriggle itself out of this reality. The Party cannot have the cake and eat it.
But on Friday Mr. Choksy tried to do precisely this by suggesting that Article 76 could be amended in a manner to exclude the proposed Regional councils from its purview.
He also suggested that Article 2 could be amended to read "subject to provisions of 76 (amended).
Mr. Sri Kantha of the TELO, who was speaking on behalf of the five party alliance rightly observed that in the event of a dispute involving the validity of legislation passed by a regional council the courts are likely to uphold the original sense of Articles 2 and 76, undermining thereby, the very basis of regional autonomy.
Prof. G. L Peiris agreed with Mr. Sri Kantha on this point.
The important thing here is that the UNP, by design or by sheer accident, has accepted that it is necessary to at least amend Articles 2 and 76 and that in saying this it has shown that it recognises the contradiction between the need to grant greater devolution of powers than what was realised under the thirteenth amendment to the constitution and the presence of Articles 2 and 76 in their present form.
It certainly is too early to say whether it indicates a permanent shift in the UNP's stand or whether it is simply another exercise in obfuscation which the UNP seems to be perfecting into an art for cultivating and sustaining Tamil support while telling its Sinhala constituency that it has not compromised any of the fundamental principles of Sinhala nationhood.
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