Theresa May’s fightback to support the Union through Brexit is only work in progress. The Irish are creating a benign vision of a United Ireland. Do the British want to match it?

The imminence of triggering Article 50 has at last woken up the British government to the reality of the threat to the Union. In a reported forthcoming tour of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to explain a negotiating  position that has seemed to ignore them,  propping up support for her “beloved Union” has become  Theresa May’s priority. Her first line of defence  will be  to  convince the massed ranks of critics that a “hard Brexit” is a misnomer which  does not create the siege economy  they fear. The free trade deal with the states of the EU  she insists can be made, would substantially retain the access to the single market that the Scots and Irish are seeking.  She is banking on this dampening down the rise in support for Scottish independence and Irish unity. But  Brexit is as much an excuse as a reason for boosting nationalism, May will need other arguments and other supporters.

After months of hand wringing in Dublin, the Fine Gael leadership hopeful Leo Varadkar is the  first Irish politician I’ve noticed  to engage openly with the reality of Brexit.

 He said the Government was working towards an arrangement with the UK that would enable the State to retain free trade “as much as possible” after Brexit.

The  Irish government was working towards a circumstance which would mean “no Border, neither hard nor soft” on the island of Ireland. Moreover, this would also entail retention of “the common citizenship that exists between Britain and Ireland”.

He  was keen to see “that Britain remains integrated into the trade structures and at the very least we have a free trade agreement between the European Union and Britain”.

His approach is complemented by the British Brexit Secretary David Davis who told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that  the border has been placed “pretty much as our top priority” and it is an issue they have looked at “very closely”.

“We have talked to the Irish government about this. The first foreign trip I made was to Dublin. They’re on side.

“We are determined to do it, the commission are on side. The commission remember had a part to play in the peace process, indeed Michel Barnier had a part to play in the peace process.

“They are absolutely determined in their minds that this is not going to go wrong so that’s the combination of determination that exists here.”

But the pressure for new referendums in Scotland and Northern Ireland requires more direct responses.  In Ireland there have been alternative attractions designed to slow the tempo of events  while recognising that unity has become a live issue. Seen in that light are Enda Kenny’s suggestion for a referendum to allow Irish citizens outside the State to elect the president and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin’s  “white paper,” swapping  Irish for British sovereignty in the North and exploring  the practical aspects of unity.

Sinn Fein’s demand for an “ urgent” border poll  has been waved away  by  May and the Northern Ireland Secretary  James Brokenshire for a lack of enough support. By definition a border poll would be sharply divisive.  If it is a serious ploy from Sinn Fein, it casts doubt on  their professed sincerity in wishing to bring the Assembly back.

The UK government now need to spell out clear criteria for judging  whether enough support for unity exists to justify calling a border poll.  Should it be based on the nationalist  vote,  a simple majority of Assembly members in favour, the latest LucidTalk poll;  or holding up a wet finger to the wind? Reliance on  the UK minister alone trivialises the momentousness of the issue.

Brokenshire’s threat  to call for a second Assembly  election – if  not an idle one – flies in the face of the prevailing determination outside  militant nationalism  not to be  stampeded into a commitment to the course of unity.   Although it would look weak and desperate, in the present triumphalist atmosphere within republicanism  unionists might feel justified in boycotting the election as the SDLP boycotted the first border poll in 1972, arguing, rightly in my view, that  a second election so soon after the last would be an abuse of democracy.   Role reversal between unionists and nationalists can take on many forms.

The time  has also arrived  for the British government  to  find more positive  reasons beyond the consent principle – if such exist. – for Northern  Ireland  to remain within the UK.   By itself and necessary though it is, the bland moderating role  between  quarrelling  factions with its  colonial manner of moral superiority from a transient English middle ranker is the one thing that unites them, particularly when it was the UK government that created  current problems. A vision of desired outcomes for Northern Ireland’s internal affairs will soon be needed.  On the wider issue of the Union, the best  they’ve come up with so far is  the generic case for the integrity of the Union facing the challenge of Brexit. It is  not enough.  Does May’s elemental defence of the Union  include  Northern Ireland only for the sake of form and completeness?  Scotland today, Northern Ireland tomorrow or vice versa, leaving rUK with a severed head on the map? Somewhere I can hear a loud chorus of ” Yes.”

The traditional unionist version of Britishness  embarrassingly lags behind the British self- image of tolerance and diversity.. It has ended up  with a working -class based populist unionist party as ingratiating bedfellows of the minority English Conservative right wing – just where the old Westminster Ulster Unionists they supplanted used to be, and look what happened to them.

Unionist isolation  is palpable. Arlene Foster’s  attempts at conciliation in public are well behind the curve, as the southern  journalist Eoghan Harris,  a  unionist sympathiser   a bitter republican opponent and Irish language enthusiast acutely observed:

I doubt she has learned a deeper lesson about the leading role of language in dealing with Sinn Fein in the future. Her continuing lack of political cop became clear in the following statement: “I have always made it clear that if people want to converse or learn the Irish language they should be allowed to do so.”

The problem here is with the word “allowed”, which conveys the sense that people are being permitted to learn Irish. All Foster had to do was substitute the word “encouraged” for “allowed” and she had Sinn Fein on the back foot.

So what if dullards in the DUP whined? One of Foster’s tasks as a leader is to educate her party.

The British political class as a whole  must make up their minds if they wish to be persuaders  for continuing Union, just as the Irish political class are making contingencies for a future united Ireland. The unionist family would have to decide how to respond, either with increasing introversion or an opening out. In my opinion they cannot do it alone. . The ensuing debate might become tense, but it can be contained within the bounds of British-Irish reconciliation and the GFA.

The issue in Scotland is more keenly joined.   On the face of it, Nicola Sturgeon’s call for the UK government to grant legal permission to hold Indy ref 2 in late 2018/ early 2019  has been made  under pressure from a position of relative weakness. It makes most sense if  a straight  refusal from May adds substantial grievance to the SNP cause.   For  the SNP Brexit is a mixed blessing. Scots voters would be asked to buy a pig in a poke over the final Brexit terms and the state of the economy. The polls are lacking the key trend of consistent rise.

Later. Indeed a new poll in the Times today records independence at 57% in favour and 43% against,  but with a history of wide fluctuation  in the run-up to the 2014 referendum.

The leading polling authority  John Curtice has just published this analysis of long term trends, concluding with this assessment of the present position. It cautions against aligning majority  Scottish support for Remain directly with support for a second independence referendum.

 Over  half of those who voted to Remain –  56% – did so despite wanting the EU to be less powerful. Amongst those Remain supporters who say they support staying in the Union the figure is even higher – 65%. In short, much of the Remain vote appears to have been an unenthusiastic one, and their regret at leaving the EU may not be sufficient to persuade them that Brexit is a good enough reason to change their minds about staying in the UK.

The SNP now hopes to be able to embark on another independence referendum. It does so against a much more favourable backdrop from its perspective than in 2012 when agreement was reached between the Scottish and UK governments about the holding of the ballot that took place in September 2014. Doubtless, it hopes to profit from the legacy of increased support left by that original ballot. But ‘banging on about Europe’ could prove less fruitful in winning over those who previously voted No to independence than the outcome of the EU referendum in Scotland might lead one to expect.

Needless to say Theresa May wants no referendum at all, but neither  does she want  to add fuel to Nicola Sturgeon’s fire by refusing outright  to allow it.  So conditionality is the name of her game.  Allow a referendum to be held when the Brexit terms are known  but give permission in advance?   That may not be enough for Sturgeon who wants to go for it before the terms are finalised, in order to give an independent Scotland a stronger basis for applying for EU membership before the UK has completed withdrawal.

Or even now,  just before Art 50 is triggered, May changes course and  adopts after all the SNP’s case for Scotland  remaining in the single market  as a UK negotiating position ( and you might think, leaving it to  the EU, regretfully but firmly, to turn it down).

Or finally to convince enough Scots of the essential UK position, that access to the single market will not be closed and Scottish independence should be reconsidered  on its essential merits much later.

In short, Theresa May’s ambition is to shift perceptions of Brexit as a slippery slope to the breakup of the UK, to becoming a massive boulder in its way.  But the slope is still very much in place.



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  • 1729torus

    UK and EU are both multinational political unions

  • Damien Mullan

    No change there. But take a look at the Commons, the Dail, or the US House or Senate, you’ll often see only the principle speakers and a few others. That’s what you get with full time parliaments, as opposed to the part time parliaments of the 18th century, when legislating was the main business of parliaments.

  • chrisjones2

    Tories in Scotland are now the second party and on 25%

  • chrisjones2

    Yes…we are intertwined ….often physically!!

  • chrisjones2

    “It cannot be imposed without draconian force”

    Yes it can. Last month the Garda rolled up to the border with a bus with about 12 deportees on board. They were handed over to PSNI who toiok them away and many were for deportation from the UK to their home countres. Border enforced. Simples

  • Katyusha

    No, Chris. That’s a spot check and an extradition, it could have and does happen anywhere in the UK.

    Although if the plan to secure the border is to have the odd guard doing spot checks I don’t think the smugglers will have anything to worry about.

  • eamoncorbett

    Who will take the SNP seats in Scotland , Corbyn, the Tories, Lib Dems, Greens.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    You are just trolling now. It is patently obvious that there are two views of Thatcher – 1) the most reassuring thing since sliced bread, and 2) an evil, nasty, malignant, twisted, lying, old tory bitch. You take (1), I’ll take (2).

    As for ‘going well’ – you mean like the shambolic National Insurance fiasco?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The description, however, was aimed at you. But then most tory Brexiteers seem almost as incompetent at reading the signs as May.

  • Deeman

    The fence would be torn down within 24 hours and any contractors would be threatened. It would destabilise the whole GFA and create chaos.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    “The UK Government will decide”!

    In your dreams. Here are some legal facts for you to consider.

    Lord Cooper (1953) – “There is no such entity as the ‘unlimited sovereignty’ claimed by Westminster in Scots Law and constitutional practice, it is a purely English legal and constitutional construct.
    The independence of Scots Law is protected by the Treaty of Union for all time. For ‘all time’ means exactly that
    Westminster has no powers to alter, ammend or adjust the conditions of the Treaty of Union; only the sovereign parliaments of Scotland and England have such powers – the legal point was conceded on behalf of Westminster by the Lord Advocate.
    Scottish sovereignty is limited by the considered will of the Scottish people”.

    UK Supreme Court (2010) – “The UK Supreme Court has no right to alter any Act, Bill or Statue of the Scottish Parliament which reflects the considered will of the Scottish people”.

    The SNP Government were elected to Holyrood in part to reflect the considered will of the Scottish people for a referendum to withdraw from the Treaty of Union and return to independent nationhood.

    If Holyrood passes the Scottish Referendum Bill (2019) then Westminster can not challenge the ‘legality’, under section 5 or 30 of the 1998 Scotland Act, as the UK Supreme Court have already stated they have no rights to set aside any Bill, Act or Statute of the Scottish Parliament which reflects the considered will of the Scottish people.

    Westminster has no ‘rights’ to enforce its will on Scotland as that assumes it has ‘unlimited sovereignty’ a concept not recognised in Scots Law or constitutional practice as sovereignty in Scotland is limited by the will of the people. (Lord Cooper/ UK Supreme Court)
    © Mad Jock McMad 2012-08-30

  • Deeman

    And unionist one party majority rule will return and rangers will win the champions league.

  • Deeman

    Or blaming English people for the crimes and atrocities carried out by the former empires military killing machine.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    You say that as if it was a huge advance. It’s not – it just reflects the complete demise of the Labour Party. The tories are no more popular in Scotland now than they were ten tears ago. They have one (1) MP in Scotland.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    No. He clarified it correctly in the last few words..

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    “Contribute and debate” seems to be your euphemism for “Propagandise and insult” – as “The Irishman” says, you should up your game.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    But not with the same degree of political representation. Each country in the EU has a voice, vote and a veto. In Westminster the overwhelming majority of English MP’s nullifies any resistance to their will, and that of the “UK” Government.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The point of Indyref 2 is that Scottish MP’s have no effective voice ever in Westminster. We have currently one tory MP. Scotland did not vote for any of the tory Westminster governments in the last forty odd years, yet we have them anyway. This is not sustainable.

  • Jollyraj

    “The fence would be torn down within 24 hours and any contractors would be threatened”

    By whom?

  • Madra Uisce

    I will also take option 2

  • Fear Éireannach

    Persons opposed to the fence, I suppose.

  • Deeman

    Farmers whose land is split, locals, etc

  • Jollyraj

    You, personally, are announcing your intention to damage government property and threaten or ontimidate council workers?

    Do you think that wise? Justified?

  • Deeman

    I wouldn’t threaten anyone. I don’t believe anyone is threatening anybody at this stage, hopefully it stays that way. However, a hard border pushed onto communities against their will is immoral and wrong and will not be accepted.

  • Jollyraj

    “The fence would be torn down within 24 hours and any contractors would be threatened”

    By whom?

    Deeman “Farmers whose land is split, locals, me”

    So that was just good, old-fashioned keyboard warrior stuff?

    Perhaps you should try a more grown up approach, Deeman. Threatening and intimidating people should stay in the past.

  • Deeman

    I agree. No one wants to see anybody being threatened. Do you think locals would accept a hard border and their communities being split? Would you accept it?

  • Jollyraj

    Well, the border never went away, you know. It’s been there for decades and decades. So, to answer your question it is necessary to know what your understanding of a ‘hard border’ is. Do tell.

  • 05OCT68

    Condescending & just what I’d expect from an imperialist.

  • Tochais Siorai

    She wasn’t always old…….

  • John Devane

    That is the most realistic outcome. The surge toward wishful thinking on the back of Brexit requires in the case of Scotland over coming the result of two very recent democratic referenda. In the case of NI/Ireland a border poll is not going to be freely given. A united Ireland is the aspiration that still seems to me some way off before it will ever be realised. Pessimistic i know.

  • John Devane

    Really? Pot kettle black? If there’s another referendem it will be after Brexit so the choice will be out of the UK / EU or Remain in the UK.

  • John Devane

    Bob Geldof the fisherman’s friend! A Remoaner