Scottish decision will recast Irish-UK links
Opinion: A vote for independence would be a traumatic jolt for the DUP in particular
The debate on Scottish independence is intensifying and alongside it there is a growing awareness in Ireland North and South that how the vote goes next September will profoundly affect this island too. This will apply whatever the result, since the United Kingdom would face a major change either way.
If Scotland votes Yes, Ireland faces the intriguing prospect of building new relations with another small English-speaking state in the European Union. Politically these relations would be solidaristic, but they would be competitive economically, probably sharply so.
In Northern Ireland, Scottish independence would be a traumatic jolt to the political identity of the Democratic Unionist Party especially, which shares so much historically and culturally with Scottish Presbyterianism and loyalism. The distinct Ulster British strand of unionism would be equally traumatised by the consequent weakening of the UK and the likely fillip they assume this would give to Sinn Féin’s agenda – although that party has been curiously slow to understand or articulate precisely how an independent Scotland might hasten debate on a united Ireland.
Official Ireland is not ready for this debate, but it would be unavoidable. And should the rest of the UK begin to unravel after losing Scotland, it would raise huge questions over how sustainable are the large existing UK transfers to Northern Ireland. There would be much to talk about in the new intergovernmental relationship between Dublin and London set up two years ago by Enda Kenny and David Cameron. It provides for two meetings of departmental secretary generals each year with a mandate to pursue joint activities and will be reviewed next month. It is described by one insider as a common law Elysee Treaty, echoing the close relations between France and Germany set out in 1963 and developed since then.
Fraught and bitter talks
We can assume Scotland would become a member of the EU because it qualifies on most counts and would apply after an Edinburgh negotiation with London on the nuts and bolts of independence. While these talks would be fraught and bitter, there would be a common interest in maintaining continuity sufficient to convince Brussels of Scotland’s case despite Spanish or Belgian fears of creating a separatist precedent.
However a Yes vote in Scotland is still unlikely according to polling – despite the formidable campaigning power and moral force of those favouring independence which has yet to come fully into play. I have explored some of these implications for Ireland of the Scottish vote at greater length elsewhere (see iiea.com). It must be emphasised that even if Scotland votes No, they will still be extensive for three reasons: the political logic of deeper devolution (“devo-max”); the emerging debate on federalising the UK; and the intensifying debate on whether the UK will remain in the EU.
It remains to be seen whether the Conservatives or more likely Labour will offer a devo-max package to Scottish voters before the referendum to sway opinion away from independence. Tactical and strategic issues are at play in both parties. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a deeper devolution that did not give Scotland tax and spending powers tantamount to a federal arrangement whereby it would control them fully and transfer funds to London for foreign affairs, defence and other agreed central tasks.
That would have clear knock-on effects on Wales, which would welcome it, and on Northern Ireland, as on corporation tax; the existing Barnett formula defining transfers within the UK would be radically reviewed, putting the North’s generous financing in doubt.
But a federal UK would be really difficult to achieve because of England’s disproportionate size and existing centralised political structures and cultures along with its parliamentary sovereignty and majoritarianism. Inequalities between the London region and poorer parts of England have increased and are more and more resented. If the Labour Party wins the 2015 general election, it would be less inclined to move in a federal direction unless pushed hard. All this recalls the debates on Home Rule for Ireland from the 1880s to 1918 – how maximal or final is devolution compared to independence? The Scottish question will not go away.
A Labour government would not want a referendum on the EU but may be forced to concede one as the election looms. This is the largest question facing Irish policymakers concerning the UK’s political future, but it is closely linked to the internal one on Scotland and deepening devolution. Both are concerned with sharing power and sovereignty. This is what a growing strand of Eurosceptic and nationalist opinion in England does not want to do.