Ireland takes steps towards cementing Wales and Scotland as allies

Irish Consulate returns to Cardiff as Brexit looks set to kickstart new and diverse relations

 Welsh flag: the political landscape has changed irrevocably since 2009, creating room for a more defined and closer relationship between Dublin and Cardiff. Photograph: Thinkstock

Welsh flag: the political landscape has changed irrevocably since 2009, creating room for a more defined and closer relationship between Dublin and Cardiff. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Nearly 10 years ago, the then Welsh first minister, Rhodri Morgan, described the decision of the Government to close the Irish Consulate in Cardiff as “a sad and regrettable” one.

Privately, Morgan was blunter in his criticisms, particularly about Dublin’s declaration that the Irish/Welsh relationship could be “effectively sustained and promoted” by the Irish Embassy in London.

A decade on, the Irish are back in Cardiff, or soon will be, with the reopening of the consulate there in coming months a visible indicator that the Republic has emerged from the financial crash of 2008.

Equally, however, than ever before.

“We are really looking forward to having the Irish back here very shortly,” says Richard Wyn Jones, who is professor of Welsh politics at Cardiff University.

Wyn Jones is of many well-placed academics and commentators in Scotland and Wales grappling with the unintended consequences of the United Kingdom vote to quit the European Union.

The reinstated Cardiff consulate will be run by the new Irish Consul-General Denise Hanrahan. Her counterpart in the Edinburgh consulate, which never closed despite 2009 cutbacks, is Mark Hanniffy.

Brexit will serve to strengthen the Welsh-Irish relationship, Wyn Jones tells The Irish Times: “Clearly the Welsh government is very keen on closer links with Ireland. ”

The closure of the Irish consulate in Cardiff “was a big blow”, he says. “There is a very strong sense that the links over the Irish Sea are vital for both sides. They are hoping to improve what already is a close relationship.”

Though similar in many ways, Cardiff and Edinburgh reject traditional British notions of sovereignty. In Wales, there is little pressure for independence, but strong support for more devolution.

‘Traditional UK state’

In Scotland, there is greater support for a complete break with London, but still not a majority. In Wales, though, the support for greater home rule is particularly strong among young people, especially those on the centre-left.

“I am struck by the way Brexit is having an impact in particular on young Labour activists in Wales who are no longer wedded to the traditional UK state,” says Wyn Jones.

Though similar in many ways, Cardiff and Edinburgh reject traditional British notions of sovereignty

“They are asking questions that were not being asked four years ago. Brexit is shifting opinion within the Labour Party in Wales,” says the University of Cardiff academic.

This, he believes, will not lead to a push for Welsh independence, but Brexit has raised fundamental constitutional questions. “It is not just the case that we want more power for Wales, it is that this model of the UK is broken.

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“What happens after that is anybody’s guess but there is this sense of Brexit having this hugely destabilising impact in terms of young activists’ view of the state they live in.”

Wyn Jones adds that the “serial mishandling” of Brexit by British prime minister Theresa May and the British government has unsettled many Welsh people who favour the maintenance of the UK.

“They are absolutely undermining the support for the traditional notion of the union among lots of people who self-identify as unionists in Wales,” he declares.

Whitehall has “essentially” ignored the devolved administrations “at every juncture” since voters across the United Kingdom decided by a small majority to quit the European Union.

Had the Stormont Executive and Assembly been up and running it would have been “chafing against the same issues that Cardiff and Edinburgh have been chafing against”, he goes on.

In Edinburgh, meanwhile, Kevin Pringle played a key role for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party before, during and after the failed Scottish independent referendum in 2014.

Today, Pringle believes that Brexit could be the catalyst for a new “and much more diverse” set of relationships between Scotland, Wales and Ireland, North and South.

Scotland voted Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent while Wales voted Leave by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. Northern Ireland voted to stay by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

Shifting dynamic

The European Union was integral to the institutions that were created by the 1998 Belfast Agreement, while the European influence, too, was very important to the political processes in Scotland and Wales.

“Both Scotland and Wales will be reluctant about giving up a very important and now long-standing relationship with the rest of Europe. I think that is bound to lead to people thinking about what the alternatives are,” he says.

Pringle adds that the shifting dynamic created by Brexit “could encourage a process of independence for Scotland, a process of Irish unification and a process of greater autonomy for Wales”.

“I think Brexit is bound to test these issues further, there is no question about it, whether in the shorter term or the longer term. There is no doubt that is the dynamic built into the Brexit process.

The shifting dynamic created by Brexit 'could encourage a process of independence for Scotland, a process of Irish unification and a process of greater autonomy for Wales'

“I don’t think the Brexiteers thought about that but then they really didn’t think about any of these things,” says Pringle, now an influential political lobbyist in Edinburgh.

Pringle was struck by the St Patrick’s Week celebrations, where Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Ministers travelled around the world. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe to London. Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Brendan Griffin took in a trip to Scotland.

“Clearly the Irish Government has a perception of Scotland that is, without exaggerating it, on a different level to the relationship it would seek to have with other devolved or federal administrations in other countries,” he says.

Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, says a stronger relationship between Dublin and Edinburgh would “make sense” if Scotland finally opts for independence.

“Two relatively small countries inside the EU will have to seek allies to operate effectively,” says Curtice, who believes that the “sinews of the union” have been stretched by Brexit.

However, he counsels against too easy assumptions that Scotland would opt for independence or, even if the vote was yes, that it would seek to rejoin the European Union.

‘Long grass’

Despite more commonly expressed views about those favouring independence in Scotland, he points out that nearly one-third of SNP supporters who voted for independence in 2014 voted to leave the EU two years later.

Curtice, who features regularly on TV as an election commentator and psephologist, suspects the SNP will “kick the issue of EU membership into the long grass”, leaving a decision on membership for the future.

Polling indicates that, at the moment, there has been little shift in the support for independence and that if there were a referendum today the result still would be 55 per cent to 45 per cent to stay in the UK.

Despite the hyperbole about greater links between Dublin and Edinburgh, Mure Dickie, the Financial Times correspondent in Scotland, cautions that Edinburgh’s strongest tie is still with London.

“Whatever happens, it is good to promote closer economic links between the whole of Ireland and Scotland but for both parties it is always going to be a secondary level of an economic relationship,” he adds.

Like Curtice, Dickie believes that the SNP will want to push the EU membership can down the road if it opts to go ahead with another Scottish independence referendum, even though it will face pressure to be clear.

Like everyone else, Dickie cannot predict Brexit’s final outcome, though the best outcome for Scottish independence supporters would be a soft Brexit with the UK remaining in the customs union and single market.

“That means Scotland can have its cake and eat it. It can be part of the EU and minimise the barriers created between Scotland and England, ” he says.

“Then,” Dickie adds with a little Scottish causticism, “you could have a situation quite attractive to moderate Scots where the rest of the UK has to listen to the EU outside the room, as Mrs May has been doing, whereas Scotland would be in there being talked over by France and Germany – but at least in the room. And with Dublin as an ally.”

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