Key votes on EU and Scotland will impact Ireland
Outcome of two key referendums will shape future British- Irish relations
Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond holds a public discussion on Scottish independence at the Volunteer Rooms in Irvine, Scotland.
Ireland has a close constitutional and political relationship with Britain that profoundly affects our interests and welfare.
Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, while the Republic has a constitutional role in the North’s future spelled out in the Belfast Agreement and has now much closer bilateral links with the British government than before. The peoples of these islands enjoy probably their most harmonious ever relationships.
These British-Irish interdependencies were developed in the setting of both states’ membership of the European communities since the 1970s and their respective relations with the United States.
The wider links facilitated their work together on a Northern Ireland settlement and stimulated a convergence on economic policy and interests. In recent years the relationship is commonly accepted to have become “normalised” or even “transformed”, capped by Queen Elizabeth’s moving visit here in 2011 and President Higgins’s return visit next week.
But just as this point is reached and the Northern Ireland settlement brings relative peace and stability to this island, Britain’s own constitutional and political future is being unsettled – even transformed – by Scotland’s decision on independence in September and the looming one on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union.
Either or both decisions will have serious consequences for British-Irish relations and for Irish interests, so it is worth spelling them out as possible scenarios of change.
Product of empire
The United Kingdom was created and developed as part and parcel of Britain’s worldwide empire from the 18th to the 20th century. It was based internally on England’s early conquest of Wales, its sovereign treaty with Scotland, its more contested incorporation of Ireland and on Britain’s external struggle with other powers.
After empire, the UK remained intact in external alliance with the US and internally through the creation of the welfare state, while the ambiguity between England and Britain survived. Its membership of the EEC/EU was a pragmatic and utilitarian adjustment to these changed circumstances, not an affirmation of shared sovereignty and renewed political identity as in Germany, France, or later in Ireland.
That post-war era is coming to a close, posing real challenges for the UK’s future. A majority of Scots want either maximal devolution (amounting to federal powers) or independence because they are dissatisfied with rule from London. They believe it is no longer an equal bargain and is based on increasingly divergent values, notably on welfare. London’s majoritarian decision-making does not represent Scottish interests, especially when the Tories are in power.
Scots see a growing inequality between the southeast of England and the rest of the UK. A significant swing group will vote for independence if they believe they will otherwise not get maximal devolution.
Divisions in the British Labour Party over what should be offered show many Scottish Labour MPs believe a federal arrangement would deprive them of a role. It would hasten the trend towards English votes for English laws at Westminster, putting Labour in office but no longer in power because of England’s Conservative majority.