Northern League calls for devolution of Rome's power

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The Independent Online

Arriving in 228 coaches, 10 special trains and eight ships, thousands of members of the Northern League, northern Italy's secessionist party, are descending on Venice for their annual conference tomorrow.

But although their founder and chief, Umberto Bossi, is Minister for Reforms in Silvio Berlusconi's government, and the Prime Minister's right hand man, it is expected to be a sombre event.

The founding slogan of Mr Bossi's party, whose long-term goal is independence for "Padania", the richer half of the peninsula, is Roma Ladrona, or "Big Thief Rome". His desired halfway house to independence is to downgrade Rome to the status of a "vice-capital", alongside Milan, Turin and Florence.

But on Tuesday Mr Bossi and the other coalition party leaders held a news conference to announce a package of constitutional reforms. They confirmed the status of Rome as Italy's capital, and went further, designating it a "special city".

Mr Bossi conjured his party out of nothing in the 1980s, on the platform that Rome was a monstrous parasite, sucking the blood of the hard-working industrialised north to the benefit of the corrupt, lawless, indolent south.

How Mr Bossi will reconcile his party's historical position with his endorsement of the status and power of Roma Ladrona remains to be seen. He has made no comment since Tuesday. He has been closeted at his home in the village of Gemonio, working on his conference speech.

Mr Bossi quit Mr Berlusconi's first government in 1994, bringing it down, after the Prime Minister failed to make good on his promises of federal reform. He has frequently threatened to do the same again if devolution of power, including fiscal devolution, does not begin for real.

Mr Bossi runs a tight ship - "Bossi is Bossi" his supporters say, "the padre padrone, without him the League would not even exist." But after Tuesday's announcement the complaints came flooding in to the phone-in programmes of the party's radio station, Radio Padania. "Making Rome the capital amounts to decapitating the League," said one caller.

Last year, at Mr Bossi's urging, parliament passed a first package of devolution reforms, which included the devolution of powers over health, local police and schooling to the regions. The implementation of these measures was included in the package announced on Tuesday. But in the view of many grassroots Northern League members, they are trumped by the new declaration of Rome's status as "capital of the federal republic", with increased (though unspecified) powers. "They're dragging us round and round," complained a caller to Radio Padania. "We need to go for secession."

To the outside world, Rome appears the inevitable capital of Italy, given its splendour and history. As far back as 1861, Count Camillo Cavour, one of the founding heroes of unified Italy, told his comrades: "The historical, intellectual and moral circumstances that must determine the condition of a capital ... come together in Rome ... [it is] destined to be the capital of a great state."

But for Mr Bossi and his followers that has always been a huge error. "Rome already has a king," says one Legista, "he's called the Pope."

The government's reform package increases the power of Rome, the city that has, in the words of one Bossi supporter, "systematically robbed Padanians of the money they earn with the sweat of their brow".