New Scottish first minister’s approach to Europe will be important to Ireland

Humza Yousaf was unabashed in his acceptance speech in his support for the EU, and of Scotland rejoining at the earliest possible opportunity

Few countries share closer ties than Scotland and Ireland. These go back to the very foundations of our countries – the word Scot comes from a Latin name for the Irish. Today hundreds of thousands of Scots take pride in our Irish heritage (the Gethins hail from Sligo originally) and our global diasporas are interconnected, with the Scots-Irish diaspora an important part of our shared heritage.

Scotland and Ireland are family with all of the complications, tricky history and fondness that goes with any familial relationship. That also means that our politics is heavily influenced by the other, even subconsciously. Recently it appeared to be one-way, with Scottish politicians frequently citing our closest EU neighbour in political debate. Ireland may have its own problems but its success in growing its economy, narrowing inequality and using its international clout to protect its interests during a very difficult Brexit process is looked upon enviously across the Irish Sea’s north channel. Yet politics in Scotland is not entirely inconsequential for Ireland.

Humza Yousaf’s election means there are leaders with Asian heritage in positions of leadership in Dublin, London and Edinburgh. Regardless of politics, that landmark is important, underlining the value of immigration to countries who have known plenty of emigration. Humza reflected on that during his own remarks after the leadership ballot was announced:

“We should all take pride in the fact that today we have sent a clear message, that your colour of skin, your faith, is not a barrier to leading the country we all call home. From the Punjab to our parliament, this is a journey over generations that reminds us that we should celebrate migrants who contribute so much to our country.”


However, it is his approach to the rest of Europe that may be most important to Ireland. In recent times the question of Scottish independence, so dominant in Scotland’s politics, has been tied up with Brexit. In the aftermath of the EU referendum support for independence has grown with a shift in support among those who voted no to independence but yes to Remain.

The new first minister was unabashed in his support for the EU and of Scotland rejoining at the earliest possible opportunity in his acceptance speech. That is popular both among SNP members, who elected Yousaf, and the Scottish public at large. He will now be the most vocal and senior pro-European voice in the UK.

Despite its failure and economic impact, both Labour and Conservatives are reluctant to talk about the UK’s relationship with the EU. Brexit is pulling at the very fabric of the UK and in 100 years’ time, should Scotland become independent, future historians will mark 1973 and the UK and Ireland’s accession to the EU as being the moment that the 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England was destined to be consigned to history. The European Union provides a model of union that countries like Ireland, Finland and Lithuania find suits them, with the UK nature of centralised unionism increasingly looking like a relic of the past.

If Scotland becomes independent the consensus will be built pro-EU, as in Ireland. Make no mistake, Brexit has made a difference in Scotland’s politics, with its politicians borrowing from Yeats describing the new post-Brexit reality – “all changed, changed utterly”.

Some wonder aloud if the future of these islands could look like those of our Nordic neighbours, who have various degrees of relationship with the EU depending on their politics. Even if Scotland does not become independent it is difficult to see the union surviving without some concessions from Westminster to Scotland on the question of Europe. As the renowned political scientist Prof John Curtice explained at the weekend: “If you want to save the union you have to change public opinion, but making the case means explaining why Brexit is to Scotland’s advantage. Good luck!”

Could Ireland see a close ally emerge in the EU Council of Ministers? As Minister of State Neale Richmond (a close observer of Scottish politics) told me, the Irish would see the Scots as “natural allies”, similar to the Greeks and Cypriots or the Baltics states, for instance.

However, the emergence of Yousaf will be important in other respects too. The first minister fought his campaign on an unashamedly socially progressive platform. That is similar to the ideals pursued by Nicola Sturgeon and are more similar to the consensus on social issues in Dublin rather than London.

Also, on the key issue of security Humza Yousaf is a supporter of Ukraine and those around him take Scotland’s responsibilities in the field of security deeply seriously. That will be reassuring for our allies, especially our neighbours, including our non-Nato neighbour to Scotland’s southwest.

However, there are significant challenges for the new first minister. A cost-of-living crisis and challenges in public services will be the first priority for the new first minister. We know that voters, who have repeatedly backed the SNP in government, will want to see results in terms of devolved responsibilities.

Those who have voted for the SNP and the SNP members who elected Yousaf will also want to see progress on independence. The repeated refusals to respect the mandate of the Scottish government to hold another independence referendum – a pro-independence majority has been elected in every Holyrood and Westminster election over the past decade – may be frustrating. It will also be doing little in terms of support for the union. The new first minister will be expected to deliver.

There are no certainties in politics, and certainly none in terms of the kind of Scotland that will emerge during Yousaf’s time in office. However, just as in centuries past, whatever happens will be of interest to our friends and family in Ireland, and in other parts of our shared islands.

Stephen Gethins is professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews, the author of Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World (Luath Press Ltd) and a former SNP MP