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.
The debate on the EU is between those who say the UK can only protect its global interests and influence by staying in and sceptics who argue it can thrive in a global marketplace unconstrained by EU regulation.
Available EU reforms will not satisfy those opposed, if the Tories win next year’s general elections. If Labour wins the question is postponed, not resolved. The UK will not join the deepening euro zone and rules must be agreed between its members and those outside it in the single market.
Bringing the Scottish and EU questions together gives us four scenarios with different effects on Ireland. The most radical would see Scotland out of the UK and the UK out of the EU. The Yes and No sides are getting closer in Scotland and September’s result is nearly unpredictable.
A Yes vote would make a later No to the EU more likely. If that happened the UK would probably break up because a Eurosceptic-dominated England would be less willing to fund Wales and Northern Ireland.
That would put Irish unity on the political agenda far more quickly than political elites and citizens North and South expect or desire, not least because the EU border would otherwise straddle Ireland. Negotiating these changed relationships would be a huge task for the Government.
If Scotland leaves the UK and the UK stays in the EU this task would be less daunting but still large. Reduced solidarity in the remaining UK would unsettle it and Northern Ireland unionists would be traumatised. Flag protests in Belfast would be over a different flag, minus its Scottish blue. Ireland would welcome an independent Scotland and want to do business with it, requiring a redesign of the existing British-Irish regime.
If, thirdly, Scotland decides to stay in the UK but the UK later decides to leave the EU the Scottish question would be reopened, since EU withdrawal would presumably be carried by an English majority against Scottish preferences and interests. The new East-West arrangements outlined in the 2012 Downing Street agreement would be used to negotiate the fallout with London and Brussels in an unsettled setting rather like the first scenario.
The final one keeps Scotland in the UK and the UK in the EU. This is arguably still the most likely outcome and the one probably preferred by most elites; but it does not guarantee stability. This is because achieving a federal state in the UK would be so difficult for its dominant English political culture to accept that they might well prefer break-up to paying that price.
So the next five to 10 years in the relationship promise to be as full of change as the decade we are now commemorating 100 years on. It is just as well the British-Irish relationship is now so much more friendly and capable than then.