Decisions before Scottish electorate are full of consequence for Ireland too

Opinion: The case for staying within the UK is uncannily similar to that for Britain staying in the EU

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond at a press conference in Edinburgh earlier this week.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond at a press conference in Edinburgh earlier this week.


Publication of Scotland’s white paper on independence this week marks an important stage in that campaign. One central issue is whether an independent Scotland would join a currency union with sterling. Another is whether an independent Scotland would join the European Union automatically or not.

Either eventuality should remind Irish observers these decisions are full of consequences for both parts of this country. There is an uncanny resemblance between the unionist case for Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom to preserve its influence and capacity in a larger setting and the case for the UK remaining in the EU for the same reasons. But either or both of these could fail in the next three years. And if it is decided membership of both unions should continue there would also be important implications for Ireland.

The Republic is now much less dependent on Britain economically and politically than it was in the 40 years after 1922, in good part because Europe has broadened access and perspectives. The joint interest in and responsibility for Northern Ireland and the improved bilateral relationship make for a more complex and warmer interdependence.

That is reflected in the new regime created by the Downing Street statement last year to manage the relationship. It provides for detailed consultations across the span of policies and regular summits. This regime will be needed all the more depending on whether Scotland votes to leave the UK and whether the UK then votes to leave the EU. It is a very open question whether these decisions will take Ireland’s interests – north or south – into account.

There are four possible outcomes. Mapping them out is an instructive exercise allowing one to identify hypothetical changes in the UK’s position as a partner with Ireland, the effects on Northern Ireland and the interests of various stakeholders.

UK breakup
The first possibility would see Scotland out of the UK and the UK out of the EU. A UK breakup is likely in this case, since a Eurosceptic-dominated England would be less willing to support Wales and Northern Ireland, and they too would want to rethink their futures. This would require radical change in British-Irish relations. Irish unity would be put on the political agenda far more quickly than its political elites and voters expect or desire. Its multiple political and economic stakeholders would have to redefine their interests radically.

The second possibility would see Scotland out of the UK and the UK remaining in the EU. This would further unsettle the UK and reduce its solidarity because a dominant England would be less willing to fund and share power equitably with Wales and Northern Ireland. There would have to be a rethink within the remaining parts of the UK and a redesign of the British-Irish regime.

The third possibility would see Scotland staying in the UK but the UK later deciding to leave the EU, almost certainly with an English majority determining the referendum result. That would reopen the Scottish independence question, further unsettling the UK one. Major issues would be posed for the British- Irish regime, including that the Irish border would become the EU one and a really messy regulatory and competitive environment. The new east- west arrangements outlined in the Downing Street statement would be challenged to negotiate these problems bilaterally and with the EU.

The fourth – and arguably still most likely – possibility keeps Scotland in the UK and the UK in the EU. Deepening Scottish devolution and a renegotiated UK relationship with a changing EU and deepening euro zone, probably through a new EU treaty, would trigger a debate on whether the UK should federalise. But that may not be feasible because of English unionism’s deep commitment to a centralised unitary state. Either way the British-Irish regime would have to take full account of this potentially innovative or fragmenting condition.

These four possibilities show how unsettled the UK will be in the coming years as it deals with its dual internal and external constitutional questions. The outcomes could be much more immediate than is currently anticipated by Irish leaders, public opinion or voter preferences. They could dramatically reconfigure Ireland north and south by putting unification on the agenda in unexpected ways.

This is all the more reason why a self-interested official Ireland still recovering from financial crisis might want the UK to stay in a more neoliberal EU, London continue to subsidise Northern Ireland, and might see an independent Scotland as a potential competitor for investment more than a new partner.

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