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.

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