Dublin silence will no longer be an option if Scotland votes for independence
Opinion: Ministers warned to say nothing on Scottish referendum
‘Mere discussion in the Irish context of issues relevant to Irish people would not constitute an entreaty to Scots to vote either way. The questions raised for Ireland are highly sensitive, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland.’ Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
They’re tearing their hair out in Britain over Scotland. Separatists are making headway on the referendum trail, unionists are jittery and so too are financial markets. Over here, however, there’s nothing but the sound of silence.
The vote on Scottish secession takes place in 12 days. It’s clear that the creation of a new independent state in the neighbouring island would make big waves in Ireland. But the Government has gone to extraordinary lengths to say as little as it can about the matter.
This flows from Dublin’s understandable reluctance to be seen to take sides in the Scottish discussion. Scottish nationalists fired brickbats at Australian premier Tony Abbott when he said an independent Scotland would do nothing for the international community.
Abbott could always scurry home to the other end of the world and duly did. It’s not quite the same for leaders in neighbouring states.
Still, mere discussion in the Irish context of issues relevant to Irish people would not constitute an entreaty to Scots to vote either way. The questions raised for Ireland are highly sensitive, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. Questions arise too as to whether an independent Scotland tackles Ireland on the corporate tax front. Also at issue is the matter of a Scottish state’s entry into the EU and objections arising in member states such as Spain, which would fear an emboldening of separatist sentiment in the Basque region.
In short, uncertainties abound. You might well think it would be better for the Government to debate all of this – and more – quite openly, as happens all the time. But that’s not how they see it in Merrion Street and Iveagh House.
On the contrary, all we have seen to date are glancing references to work quietly under way to examine the implications of the United Kingdom breaking up after 307 years. That will hardly change before polling day.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan shows no evident appetite for public discussion of the matter. According to his department, there has been no Cabinet memorandum on the Scottish question since Flanagan took office. It was the same during Eamon Gilmore’s time.
Indeed, internal department records released under the Freedom of Information Act to Carl O’Brien of this newspaper say the Government should be “very careful to avoid expressing views” on Scottish independence. “The question of membership of the EU for an independent Scotland is a hypothetical one at the present time. Discussion of it raises complex issues of considerable sensitivity and so the Government must be careful to avoid expressing views prematurely.”
It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that the same goes for material prepared for public consumption. In a statutory assessment last April of risks facing the State, Scotland was disposed of in a single sentence. This document cast the referendum in the context of a promise by British prime minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on European Union membership in 2017 if he secures re-election next year. “If the so-called Brexit option is taken, it could introduce profound uncertainty into Anglo-Irish relations. Similarly, the outcome of the Scottish referendum on independence could introduce an element of instability into Northern Ireland.”
That’s as much as it said. Instability is nothing new in the North, of course. Yet any discursive assessment of the issues in play – including the prickly question of whether Scottish independence prompts pressure for Irish unity and a countervailing backlash – is reserved for the private domain.
The Government’s basic position, set out in a response to a parliamentary question submitted by Labour TD Robert Dowds last February, is this: “Ireland is entirely neutral in the debate, on the basis that the question is one for the people of Scotland to decide.
“That being said, the issues arising in the Scottish debate are of major importance, and have potentially significant direct and indirect implications for Ireland. Our silence, therefore, should not be mistaken for indifference. Our Embassy in London and consulate general in Edinburgh, in communication with the relevant stakeholders across the whole of Government, are monitoring the debate very closely and assessing the issues arising on an ongoing basis.”
In other words: this stuff is deeply serious, it’s so serious we won’t go there publicly but it’s all hypothetical anyway so we have the luxury of saying next to nothing at this point.
There is another reason, of course, for the prevailing sense of calm in Dublin: the general expectation in the body politic that Scots will reject independence. It’s fair to say the debate here would be a good deal livelier if Scotland’s exit from the UK looked like it would actually happen.
To those who would think nothing of the Scottish debate came news this week of an opinion poll that showed support for the secessionists is on the rise. The bookies still reckon on defeat for the independence camp, but the result may be a whole lot closer than forecast at the outset. This is one to watch. Silence will not be an option in Dublin if Scotland breaks away.