Dublin and Edinburgh grow closer in wake of Brexit

Leinster House has become Sturgeon’s greatest ally since result of Brexit vote

Fiona Hyslop, cabinet secretary for external affairs in the Scottish government: “We have been growing closer together in recent years and it is even more imperative now.” Photograph: Ken Jack/Corbis via Getty Images

Fiona Hyslop, cabinet secretary for external affairs in the Scottish government: “We have been growing closer together in recent years and it is even more imperative now.” Photograph: Ken Jack/Corbis via Getty Images

 

Scotland is Ireland’s closest neighbour, yet at times the political distance between the two countries has seemed far greater than the 12 miles that separate the Antrim coast from the Mull of Kintyre.

Relations between Dublin and Edinburgh have been increasingly convivial in recent years, but they deepened significantly in the past week.

Leinster House has emerged as the firmest supporter of first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s determination to keep Scotland in the European Union since the UK’s Brexit vote.

A majority of people in Scotland voted to remain in the EU and the government at Holyrood sees the relationship with Dublin as crucial.

“We have been growing closer together in recent years and it is even more imperative now,” Fiona Hyslop, cabinet secretary for external affairs in the Scottish government, told The Irish Times.

The feeling from Dublin seems mutual. “We see great potential in developing Irish-Scottish relations, whatever the challenges currently before us,” says Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan.

Enda Kenny spoke on behalf of Sturgeon’s position in Tuesday’s European Council meeting. The intervention was not spontaneous.

The two leaders met at the British-Irish Council meeting in Glasgow last month where the Scottish first minister put her case for Scotland to the Taoiseach. After Kenny’s intercession this week, Sturgeon declared that “Ireland is a great friend to Scotland’.

Shared concern

Joe McHugh, Minister of State for the Diaspora, says the decision to leave the EU has created a space for new links between Scotland and Ireland.

“Brexit has opened up possibilities around that relationship that is possibly secondary to the vote itself but it is something that Nicola Sturgeon is very keen to look at,” says McHugh, who is due to speak about Brexit at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Dublin on Monday.

Irish political support for Scottish ambitions extends beyond Government circles. This week Micheál Martin said the Government should “demand fair play” for Scotland in its negotiations with the European Union.

The Fianna Fáil leader also said Scotland should be fast-tracked through European Union membership if it did choose independence.

Senators here have called for Sturgeon to be invited to address the Seanad on Brexit before it adjourns for the summer recess later this month.

The recent bloom in relations follows almost two decades of gradual rapprochement. The Irish consul in Edinburgh, set up in the wake of devolution in 1999, has played a key role.

Ireland’s is the only Government that Scotland has a direct relationship with, through the British-Irish Council, which has a permanent secretariat in Edinburgh.

Independence

“There is also an understanding rooted in our own history, our process of seeking independence but also the sense for Ireland that our European engagement has also allowed us to assert our own sovereignty. We understand why that is also important to the Scots.”

Holyrood has “quite deliberately enhanced and intensified” the relationship with Dublin over the past two years, a process that has “ratcheted up” since the Brexit vote, a well-placed Scottish government source says.

In 2012, no Scottish government ministers visited Ireland and just one went the other way. There have been more than a dozen such visits in the past 18 months alone.

Last year, Flanagan on an official visit to Edinburgh, talked of “a new chapter” opening up in relations between Scotland and Ireland.

Economic ties have strengthened. In 2014, Scottish exports to the Republic of Ireland were worth about £1.125 billion (€1.34 billion).

An estimated 6,000 Scottish jobs are directly dependent on Irish companies. The Irish Business Network Scotland was established earlier this year.

However, the Celtic entente goes beyond the balance sheet. Holyrood and Leinster House have traded policy lessons on everything from smoking bans and plastic bag charges to minimum pricing on alcohol.

Ireland has also increased its diplomatic representation in Edinburgh, while the Scottish government has established a representative office in Dublin.

Historical links

Michael D Higgins

The sympathy has always been there in Dublin but it is more public now, says James Mitchell, professor of politics in Edinburgh University.

How London feels about growing links between Dublin and Edinburgh remains to be seen, but regardless of whether Sturgeon’s EU efforts bear fruit, the relationship between Ireland and Scotland looks set to strengthen further.

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