Sturgeon sees NI protocol as ‘template’ for independent Scotland in EU

SNP leader hopes to win Holyrood majority and push for second referendum post Covid

Scottish first minister and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon at Rouken Glen Garden Centre while campaigning. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/Pool/Getty

Nicola Sturgeon came to Reuken Glen Garden Centre on the outskirts of Glasgow on Wednesday morning to have a cup of tea, buy a few potted azaleas and talk about health policy. The lifting of some coronavirus restrictions this week has made campaigning for next week's Scottish parliament elections a little easier but events are still limited and subject to strict social-distancing rules.

“It’s easier to tell people what the rules are than it is to remember them,” Sturgeon joked as she took off her face mask to drink her tea.

The first minister's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has boosted her personal popularity and that of her Scottish National Party (SNP), which is set to remain by far the biggest party at Holyrood. But the central dividing line in the election is on Sturgeon's promise to call a second independence referendum during the next parliamentary term.

Sturgeon currently leads a minority SNP government with the support of the Greens, who also support independence, and the latest polls suggest that she could narrowly miss out on an overall majority again this time.


“I’m working hard to try and secure an SNP majority but I’m under no illusions as to how difficult that is under a proportional representation system, so it can’t be taken for granted and it should not be seen as some kind of failure if the SNP don’t do that,” she says.

“We want to win the election and to win the election clearly and comfortably. For independence what matters most is that there is a majority, a simple majority in the next parliament of pro-independence MSPs, that we can use that as the authority for another independence referendum. Not immediately, because our focus immediately is on how to get through the coronavirus pandemic. But once that crisis is over, it is for the people of Scotland, and it must be for the people of Scotland, to choose the country’s future.”

Customs border

Scotland voted against Brexit in 2016 by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, and Sturgeon has promised to lead the country back into the European Union if it becomes independent. Throughout the campaign, she has faced questions about how an independent Scotland in the EU would manage a customs and regulatory border with England.

She said the measures within the Northern Ireland protocol to limit checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea could be a model for how to reduce friction on a future border between Scotland and England.

“In terms of goods and services, if we are an independent country within the European Union, of course we have to comply with the rules and regulations,” she says. “But what we’ve got to understand is that Brexit has created border issues, and our businesses right now are paying the price for that. What we’ve got to decide is how best we arrange all of these things for maximum advantage.

“The Northern Ireland protocol, if there are easements there, yes, I think that does offer some template, but we work in a proper planned way to make sure that any rules that have to be applied are applied in a way that absolutely minimises any practical difficulties for businesses trading across the England-Scotland border.

"But the benefit of doing that is that we again open up free trade across the whole of the European Union, the world's biggest single market. Brexit had all been about narrowing Scotland's horizons, in a trading sense but also in terms of people. Independence is about opening up those horizons again and seeing Scotland firmly as a country playing its full part in Europe and the world."

‘Good position’

Sturgeon is also confident that an independent Scotland would remain within the Common Travel Area, although that would require the agreement of Britain and Ireland and an opt-out from the EU’s Schengen open borders system, which Ireland enjoys.

“There is nobody with any credibility anywhere that suggests that Scotland would not continue to be in the Common Travel Area. Even the scaremongers about independence so far haven’t tried to use [that] argument,” she says.

“And for people in Scotland that’s a real win-win because we’d retain that freedom of movement across the Common Travel Area but regain freedom of movement across the whole of the European Union. And so we’d be in the same position as the Republic of Ireland, which I think would be a really good position to be in.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times