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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London