A disunited kingdom

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

People attend the Independence rally in George Square, Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, 2 November 2019. [Robert Perry/EPA/EFE]

The EU-made “crisis” with the Northern Ireland Protocol is an opportunity for Boris Johnson to distract domestic audience from the threat that his Brexit spells for the unity of the United Kingdom, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former Fianna Fáil politician. He was the minister of state for European affairs when Ireland conducted the two referendums on the Treaty of Lisbon of the European Union, in 2008 and 2009.

On New Year’s Eve, as the United Kingdom was finally severing its 47 years of a pretty joyless EU relationship, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon posted a message on Twitter “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on”.

In the opening weeks of 2021 the focus was on the many logistics challenges that Brexit has brought. As the month moved on the political fallout of Brexit has come more in focus.  On 19 January George Osborne, the former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote that Brexiteers by “unleashing nationalism …. made the future of the UK the central issue’.

The final break with the EU put additional energy into the campaign for a second Scottish  independence referendum. It triggered other emotions in Northern Ireland.

The Scottish National Party [SNP] party argues that circumstances have changed since 2014 when 62% of Scottish voters opposed leaving the UK: Scotland has been taken out of the EU against its wishes and will suffer as a consequence.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson sees it differently suggesting that the 41-year interval between the UK’s 1975 Common Market referendum and the 2016 Brexit referendum seemed like an appropriate time interval between Scottish referenda.

That is not how most in the UK see it. A series of polls published by the Sunday Times on 24th January revealed that a plurality across the UK see Scotland leaving the UK within 10 years.

In England, and Wales 49% of those polled expected to see Scotland exit the UK within 10 years. In Northern Ireland 60% saw Scotland leaving.

In the poll in Scotland the pollsters asked those polled how they would vote on Scotland becoming an independent country, 49% said Yes, 44% said No, 7% were undecided – with undecideds excluded a 52.7% majority for independence. With undecideds excluded 53.8% wanted another referendum within the next five years.

An independence referendum will be to the fore in Scottish Parliamentary elections due in May.  Polling ahead of the election suggests the SNP will hold its dominant position possibly take 71 seats in Scotland’s 129-seat Parliament. A victory on that scale would make it difficult to resist another independence referendum.

The Sunday Times opinion poll was the twentieth consecutive Scottish opinion poll since June 2020 in which a plurality was in favour of independence. The result does not, however, mean that Scottish independence is ‘in the bag’. The majority for independence is not overwhelming respondents in many polls before 2020 took a different view, but the direction of travel raises a red flag for London.-

In Northern Ireland the Brexit impact has been particularly complex. In order to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and safeguard the Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland, while still a part of the UK, remains in the EU Custom’s Union retains regulatory alignment on agricultural and industrial goods with the EU and continues to apply EU VAT rules.

The new arrangements produced significant teething problems.  Hauliers have complained about the paperwork claiming 30 million customs forms will need to be completed annually: groupage transport has been suspended by many hauliers. Supermarket chains have temporarily dropped product lines. On – line retailers have halted operations while they adjust. Many industries were blindsided by EU rules of origin. Steel imports from the UK have been hit, the hugely important Northern Ireland/Ireland milk industry has run into unforeseen difficulties even eel fishing has been hit. Eel producers cannot export to London’s Billingsgate Market because of EU export restrictions and are blocked from importing the juvenile fish  needed restock their fisheries.

All of this has infuriated Ulster Unionist politicians who say a border has been created in the Irish Sea and called for the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key element in the UK-EU Brexit arrangements to be scrapped.  The ill-considered proposition by the EU Commission to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in its dispute with AstraZeneca exacerbated those calls and led the British Prime Minister to take ‘urgent action’ to resolve what he characterised as protocol problems.

George Osborne’s editorial added to Unionist angst by suggesting that Northern Ireland  “by remaining in the EU single market, is for all economic intents and purposes now slowly becoming part of a united Ireland” and “is already heading for the exit door,” from the United Kingdom.

Osborne’s views, rejected by Unionists as those of “yesterday’s man” reflect a disinterest about Northern Ireland’s position by many in the UK.  When asked “how would you feel if Northern Ireland left the UK?” in a YouGov poll in March 2020, 54% opted for the response “it wouldn’t bother me either way”, down 13 points since an October 2019 poll.

The January 2021 Sunday Times found that 47% of Northern Ireland respondents said they want to remain in the UK, 42%  favoured a United Ireland and 11% were undecided. Amongst voters under 45, a United Ireland was supported by 47% and opposed by 46%.

Asked should there be a referendum on a United Ireland right now, 51% said ‘Yes’ while 44% said ‘No’, the remainder were undecided.

When the poll results were released, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster suggested that a poll at this time would be “reckless” but indicated that she would not be against a referendum at some future date. Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein Vice President,  Michelle O’Neill urged the Irish Government to “step up preparations” for such a vote. The Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) said in July 2020 that a referendum on Irish unity at this point “doesn’t move things forward” and said he did not see the possibility of a referendum in the next five years.  He has reiterated those views recently.

It is likely that a referendum in Scotland will come before a referendum in Ireland. If the voters in Scotland were to vote for independence, and that’s not a certainty, it will bring pressure for a vote in Ireland.

Ironically the political legacy of Brexit could be the dismantling of the United Kingdom a possibility which Mr Johnson would wish to avoid at all costs. The extraordinary error of judgement made by the EU Commission about invoking Article 16 of the NI Protocol could not have come at a better time for Boris, giving him an ideal opportunity to burnish his Unionist credentials.

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