What does May running up the Union Jack mean for Northern Ireland as well as Scotland?

Theresa May has spoken out very directly  to reject Nicola Sturgeon’s demand to be allowed  to hold Indyref2   in emotional British patriotic language which marks it out starkly from the language of Scottish nationalism.


“Our Party believes heart and soul in our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The union is more than just a constitutional artefact.  It is a union between all of our citizens, whoever we are and wherever we’re from. So our plan for Britain will put strengthening and sustaining that union at its heart.

The precious bond between four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Keeping the Union together will be  at the heart of my plans for the country, because: it is has always been the special mission of our Conservative Party to be the true national party in Britain…rejecting the extremes of Labour’s socialist left, UKIP’s libertarian right, and the divisive and obsessive nationalisms of Plaid Cymru and the SNP.”

Perhaps we might keep the trollery at bay just for once?

The important thing about Theresa May’s speech is that she has pinned her Union Jack to the mast, not whether you agree with it. She has gone a lot further than David Cameron did in 2014.  Her Plan for Britain is  low on detail and high on rhetoric. But  if it means  anything it’s about centralised government direction. How is that compatible with the most extensive devolved powers almost anywhere for Scotland?  What intrigues me even more is how she will relate this to Northern Ireland.

Note that  her attack on “obsessive nationalism “ applies only to Plaid Cymru (poor dears) and the SNP ( fair game).  She hasn’t laid a glove on Sinn Fein who took  nationalism to of a revolutionary pitch undreamt of on the bigger island.  Although her involvement has been perfunctory, she at least recognises that although we get  parity of esteem in her Union stakes  we do need  rather different treatment.

What form might  that take? Let’s not waste much space on speculating about  a border poll, where her discretion is much more restricted than for Scotland, being based on the numbers likely to want one. This is the one obvious case where sovereignty has already been transferred to the people – and a people moreover which does not include the people of Great Britain.

Instead, her vision seems to be one based  on the tried and tested intergovernmental relationships of  the GFA and  near-interchangeable British and Irish citizenship to achieve that open border and administer all those wonderful free trade arrangements which as near as dammit to the single market, she’s going to negotiate. Call it special status if you like.  (And please, no trolling about this either). It might even work. It only needs the small matter of EU 26 compliance.  Only those who’d be dismayed if it did work will hope otherwise.

It would be unwise for the DUP to assume she’s about to try to impose their sort of unionism; they’d be well advised to align themselves with her in the terms below, suitably  translated into better political manners.  The time has come therefore for Theresa May to present a vision of Northern Ireland in the UK . If she can do it for Scotland,  she can do it for us,  to help  restore the Assembly in the context of the GFA .

In GB the choice of self -image rhetoric is between May “ the precious precious Union, more not less united.. as we put the values of fairness, responsibility and citizenship at the heart of everything we do…”  and  Sturgeon on a Scotland  “ open, welcoming, diverse and fair.”

The  range of early  commentator opinion ranges from  whistling through their teeth at Theresa’s high risk gamble on triumph or disaster, to the detachment of Simon Jenkins

May should therefore shrug her shoulders and tell Sturgeon to get on with it. She and her ministers should not campaign in a referendum in which they have no vote – nor is it likely to affect the outcome. If, as still seems likely, the union survives, so be it. If the vote is for independence, the government in London should simply ask what the Scottish parliament means by it…The days of such slogans as “indy means indy” are over. As Brexit is proving, unions and alliances between neighbours do not just dissolve. They are subject to fiendishly complex negotiation. A Scottish exit from a Brexit UK would be a negotiating horror, but essentially Scotland’s horror. It would have to decide between hard independence and soft independence.

This is a neat argument and may not be so far away  from May’s final position as the slanging match suggests, But Jenkins is too pat.   Among  valid UK interests are the inhibiting  factor of an Indyref 2  campaign in full flow as the Brexit negotiations proceed, and the  even more fiendish complexity of a possible Scottish secession as the UK prepares to leave  the EU. The  disadvantages then are far greater for Scotland in limbo than they are for rUK.

What choice did May have anyway, except to reject SNP  conditions for holding back on  a referendum call, once membership of the single market was judged incompatible with Brexit?

For the moment  Sturgeon has been robbed of  the initiative and will struggle to get back on stage next week. She will press May for  greater clarity on if  “ now is not the time,” when? It might smooth the rough  edges between them, were they sensibly  to discuss a rational share-out between Westminster and Holyrood of powers to be repatriated from Brussels.

There is just a chink of light available for compromise with Sturgeon in May’s final words: “ I will always ensure  their views are represented as we negotiate”.  So far the signs are not encouraging. But that  may change, now that it’s game on with Brussels and Edinburgh. And Belfast, if they can get their act together.

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  • AntrimGael

    Yes my nephew and his friends are decent, intelligent, well behaved, rounded people whose parents and extended families can be proud of.
    They understand that there was a violent conflict here and they hope we never return there. They also understand that the first sectarian murders were carried out by Loyalists, the first bombs were planted by Loyalists and that the first policeman was killed by Loyalists. They know that Loyalists used to bomb pubs full of Catholic pensioners and that the British State blamed the IRA. They are well informed about Bloody Sunday when innocent Civil Rights marchers were shot in the back, some of them children. The same British Paratroopers also shot people in Ballymurphy and the New Lodge AND on the Shankill Road….. no doubt honest mistakes on your part. They have read about the many children that were killed by RUC/British Army rubber/plastic bullets.
    Yes they are quite content about who they voted for BUT they cannot understand how anyone could vote for a party that contains people who are members of secret, sectarian organisations, who look down on their neighbours and call them crocodiles, rogues and renegades. Maybe you could speak to them?

  • eireanne3

    actually what I learnt at school was that “Britain” referred to England+ Wales while Great Britain was England+Wales+Scotland

    maybe PM Theresa May is just concentrating on areas where she got a “brexit” vote!!

    I have English friends who mentioned they were worried about this emphasis on “Britain”
    “We’re not Great britain any more” lamented one lady

  • eireanne3

    just like the brits are “ex-pats” and people from the rest of the world are “economic migrants” or “immigrants”

  • Croiteir

    I don’t fully accept that. The point about the Brexit vote being advisory was confirmed by the Supreme Court saying Parliament was sovereign not the referendum. However a Scottish only referendum is different and not covered by the Brexit referendum as it is a matter for Scotland. So, in effect, Scotland could legally push for UDI, Westminster can only discuss terms of separation under international law, which is its own minefield. Imagine rrUK having to enter these talks without even one set of experts on the job instead of two. My vote for Brexit was the best vote in my life. The chaos is wonderful.

  • Scots Anorak

    The SNP manifesto put to the people only last year was extremely explicit on this point:

    “We believe that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people – or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”

    For that manifesto, the SNP received the highest constituency vote in the history of the Scottish Parliament. Refusing a referendum is not a great day for democracy.

  • Fear Éireannach

    I know perfectly well that it was a UK vote, a place with several nations. I also know that the people of NI should be allowed determine the nature of relations on this island without interference from England, that is the nature of our peace settlement. Imposing a land border on NI, which won’t be imposed in England, at the behest of English people is colonialism pure and simple.

  • Fear Éireannach

    There is nowadays little enough sectarianism in Donegal, Monaghan or Cavan compared to the 6 counties.

  • eireanne3

    you need to separate out two concepts in your first sentence. The point about the Brexit vote being advisory was clear from the beginning.
    The Supreme Court said Parliament, not some Royal Prerogative which PM Theresa May wanted to use, was sovereign in deciding Brexit was binding, .

    “Apparently Scotland could legally push for UDI”.
    We’ll see how the cards fall. If the SNP sweep the boards in the upcoming (May) local elections – that card will be dealt to them ! How they decide to play it will remain to be seen.

  • Jollyraj

    Sure. But all of us evil unionists in the six counties…we will suddenly become acceptable in a UI?

  • North Down dup

    I think it’s because no one really wanted to lurn it,

  • Reader

    Kevin Breslin: Sorry, but by that logic Northern Irish denizens in the Republic of Ireland should have a say in the Northern part of an Irish unity referendum.
    I think Chris may have highlighted your wish that EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU might have had a vote in the Brexit referendum.
    Whether he meant to do so is another matter.
    But I am interested in your opinion on the rights and wrongs of the franchise for Brexit, ScotInd and UI referendum voters.

  • Reader

    hgreen: We have an unwritten one.
    We have a written constitution, but it fills a library not a leaflet.

  • Reader

    Gavin Smithson: Shankill fish and chip shop
    Frizell’s Fish Shop was a fishmongers, not a fish and chip shop.

  • Kevin Breslin

    There is no perfect system of course, and every system would have an untold wrong. My own opinions as a nationalist, Irish in my case, is that a nation is defined by both its denizens and its networks.

    There is an imperfect calculation at work as there is in any democracy.

    Take the Representation without Taxation problem that comes with expanding a franchise beyond the region’s borders.

    It’s clearly the case that people who would have eligible representation in a Scottish state and the Northern Ireland state should have a say in constitutional seperation from the UK, likewise those eligible for representation in an all-Ireland state should have a say on how that state should be formed, starting with seperate North and South plebiscites voting on whether both agree to this union.

    It’s democratic, but I can see the wrongs. There is a conceptual difference between a constitutional recognised entity a country and a country which someone devotes their affections towards.

    With regards to Brexit, it is more complicated because there is an impact on electoral francising from the removal of the European Communities Act which wouldn’t have covered referendums but would effect Parliamentary elections.