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Newton Emerson: Scottish election result not good news for Irish nationalists

Outcome has highlighted difficulty of judging whether a referendum should be called

Much thought is given to the impact of Scottish independence on unionists in Northern Ireland. Equal thought should be given to the impact on nationalists as Scotland lingers on in the union.

Following last week's Scottish election results, the Scottish National Party's (SNP) immediate call for another referendum and prime minister Boris Johnson's dismissal of this as "reckless and irresponsible", Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Colum Eastwood tweeted: "If there is a pro-independence referendum majority in the Scottish Parliament how can any British government deny a poll? You can't be a democracy and ignore the wishes of the people."

The Belfast Agreement sets a completely different legal and political context for a Border poll. However, parallels with a Scottish referendum are impossible to avoid and are increasingly heard across Irish nationalism

Eastwood is not above playing to the gallery but he is in no reckless rush for constitutional change. Two years ago, he told the Fianna Fáil ardfheis "there will be a special place reserved in hell for those who call for a Border poll in Ireland with no plan and idea on how to actually deliver it."

Scotland is not Northern Ireland, as almost everyone in Scotland is keen to point out.

It held a referendum just seven years ago, the power to hold another is not devolved to its parliament and the SNP did not campaign solely on the basis of seeking a mandate to demand one immediately. It also sought votes, on the back of its handling of the pandemic, from those opposed to independence.

The Belfast Agreement sets a completely different legal and political context for a Border poll. However, parallels with a Scottish referendum are impossible to avoid and are increasingly heard across Irish nationalism.

This is causing a dangerous new idea to enter Northern politics: that the agreed terms for a poll would be met, yet the UK government would still refuse to hold one.

Sinn Féin has claimed for a decade that London is frustrating a winnable poll but few believe this to be anything more than cynical agitation. For nationalists to suspect it might be true in the not too distant future is a far more serious matter.

Eastwood’s plaintive reference to a parliamentary majority recalls the long-standing view that a nationalist majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly was the obvious trigger for a Border poll.

The unanticipated growth of Alliance and the centre-ground in general means there may never be such a majority. On the face of it, this proves the wisdom of the agreement in specifying no conditions to call a poll, other than a nationalist win “appearing likely” to the Northern secretary.

The courts have concurred. Appeal judges threw out a demand last year for specific conditions, noting “the constitutional value of flexibility”.

But if not an assembly majority, then what? Opinion polls? Census results? There will have to be a broad mix of factors, subject to political judgment. How much faith can nationalists have in this judgment when they look to Scotland and see that even a parliamentary majority is not enough?

Perhaps even worse is the 50/50 split in Scotland’s popular vote – to be precise, 48.99 per cent for all nationalist parties on the constituency ballot and 50.12 per cent on the regional ballot.

Whether a Northern Ireland Border poll requires a threshold of more than 50 per cent plus one is an argument Irish nationalism is having with itself, although it is still managing to greatly aggravate itself. There is no significant dispute from unionism that a simple majority must suffice.

However, events in Scotland show that a result as close as 50 per cent plus one does not necessarily meet the test of making a nationalist win likely. It only makes a win possible, or as likely as not. A UK government could require the appearance of higher support before calling a poll, and this could be legally justified.

The truth about Scottish independence is that it has reached an almost perfect stalemate – something genuinely difficult for Irish nationalism to accept, given its own profound sense of destiny

Realising nationalism has signed up to a de facto threshold above 50 per cent can only cause further aggravation.

Mistrust of the UK on this issue has an internal contradiction. It is an article of faith among nationalists that London cannot wait to offload Northern Ireland and its dreadful inhabitants, yet Albion is so perfidious this cannot be relied upon, with nationalists frequently objecting the UK is not neutral on the union (not that the Belfast Agreement requires it to be).

Cognitive dissonance upsets the afflicted. Nor is it pleasant for bystanders, as nationalism argues itself around in dishonest circles about how much it wants unionists and the rest of the UK does not want them.

Scotland’s referendum dispute, in which London is definitely not neutral and Edinburgh claims it is being held against its will, will only add fuel to these fires.

The truth about Scottish independence is that it has reached an almost perfect stalemate – something genuinely difficult for Irish nationalism to accept, given its own profound sense of destiny. Last week’s Scottish parliament results are essentially unchanged since the previous election in 2016, despite the EU referendum held one month later.

So London and Edinburgh have parked the question, while intending to grandstand for years to the contrary. It is a sham fight and both sides are as bad as each other. How hard can that be for everyone in Northern Ireland to understand?