Theresa May misconstrues the Union as an English commonwealth. Instead, the best hope for “these islands” is to weather the storms of Brexit together

Theresa May’s tour of the devolved territories ( I wish we had a better collective noun) turned out to be a  jaw- droppingly empty gesture, quite apart from the inevitable omission of Belfast. Her semi-clandestine meeting with Nicola Sturgeon in a Glasgow hotel yesterday was a  stiff little ritual to confirm that Article 50 was being triggered today on behalf of the whole UK, Scotland naturally included. There was no pretence at accommodating the SNP.  Indeed there may even be a hardening of the Union position. Reports that May would be offering Holyrood extra powers emerging from Brexit turned out to be false.  As Holyrood meets today to  vote formally to ask for a second independence referendum, the FT (£)  reports that UK government are actually  toughening their conditions for agreeing to Indy ref2 when the time is right.

Mrs May and Conservative colleagues have ruled out another referendum until the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU is in place. They have also raised the prospect of other tough new preconditions, possibly including cross-party support in the Scottish parliament.

Nicola Sturgeon put a brave face on the meeting, pretending to believe that the UK and Scottish parliament’s timetable for a referendum were in synch. But this is highly speculative. And who doubts that the UK government will stall as long as possible – until well into the next decade, if they can get away with it?

May’s handling of the future of the Union amid the Brexit upheaval is all of a piece with her style of government.  Just to cope with the job, the prime minister needs to feel she’s absolutely in charge. To stay in charge she has to find pared down, simple messages.   She says she wants the UK to be ‘more united’  but makes no attempt  to answer the basic criticism that  her party and her government have done so much to divide it.   She prefers to take a gamble rather than get tangled up in too much complexity. This could be a problem as Brexit is complexity itself.   So far she’s keeping her head and seems confident. Many people wonder if it’ll stay that way.

Policy is driven by the needs of  management of the Conservative party, the party of England. Only then comes parliamentary sovereignty that the Leave campaign fought for but in practice she resists, in order to feel in control herself. She is  aware of the need to reference devolution by queenly visits but so far has shown no appreciation of how it has already changed  the British constitution. Her awareness of Ireland north and south is unlikely to be more sophisticated.   As a politician who has spent her entire life on or  near the M4 corridor, she is a classic specimen of the Westminster bubble who seems to have no real concept of life beyond. Six years as Home Secretary did nothing to soften her  centralising tendency;  the prime issues of immigration and national security are not devolved .

On the theme of  the English nationalism’s apparent indifference to the survival of the  Union flagged up by Mick from my Welsh colleague Richard Wynne Jones, Paul Goodman the editor of the influential website ConservativeHome writes seminally in the Irish Times.

Two in three of those Conservative Party members are sanguine about the end of the union. And more than one in four seem happy for it to happen.

That a party who very name contains a commitment to the union has so large a soft underbelly of English nationalism may surprise some. But not, I suspect, many people in Ireland. To them, Brexit means the English putting what they see as their own interests ahead of everyone else’s.

Either way, Brexit means change not just for the UK, but for the totality of these islands. There will be many different views of how it will work out.

The first is distinctly Anglocentric. The British economy booms as taxes and regulation are cut. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, forces a second referendum on Scottish independence, loses it, and sees the SNP decline in the aftermath, with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson leading an increasingly confident Scottish opposition. Northern Ireland stays in the union. British prime minister Theresa May wins the 2020 general election by a landslide.

In this scenario, modern Ireland’s self-image as a European country is too deeply set to see it leave the EU. But its membership becomes an unhappy one, as Dublin and Brussels snipe at each other over tax, Irish taxpayers grumble over their contribution and there is unhappy comparison between Britain’s free-floating future and Ireland’s prospects chained to a low-growth zone.

The second sees the break-up of Britain. There is no deal with the EU, and barriers go up – tariff and non-tariff. Investment into Britain stalls and companies flee. Recession follows. Scotland votes for independence. May’s government collapses in consequence, and a new centrist coalition emerges..

his shrunken Britain scarcely includes Northern Ireland. First, the new “frictionless” Border with the Republic turned out to mean a great deal of friction indeed. There is no revival of terrorist violence, but plenty of democratic protest. In the wake of Scotland’s departure from the union, Northern Ireland is left as a token member only, its government shared uneasily between London, Dublin and its own people. Meanwhile, the Republic prospers.

 These are stark contrasts, and what will happen probably lies between these two extremes. For example, Brexit could turn out to go swimmingly for most of Britain, but stickily for Northern Ireland, since the establishment of the Border as a new international frontier seems inseparable from border customs checks. Such a development could, over the medium term, cause some pro-union voters to look more sympathetically at future British EU membership and even perhaps at Irish unity. There variations seem endless.

But all those who want to avoid the deterioration of British-Irish relations after a long period of slow improvement will draw some specific conclusions.

The main one will be about institutional arrangements between Britain and Ireland. The blunt truth is that much of the former is orientated towards one big city, London, from which the rest of the country can feel a very long way away indeed. The capital may have voted in a different way to the provinces on Brexit, but it shares a similar sense of distance from Wales and Scotland, let alone Northern Ireland – and Ireland as a whole. This is not going to change any time soon.

It is deeply unfashionable to suggest that politicians should take the lead about anything, anywhere. But the fact remains that the mechanisms of Anglo-Irish relations are in the hands of the politicians – the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which links the two governments; the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which brings together politicians from throughout the islands; and, above all perhaps, the British-Irish Council, at which the heads of Britain’s devolved administrations sit on the same basis as the prime minister and the Taoiseach. In the wake of article 50 being implemented and the Brexit talks beginning, the British government needs to start giving the conference and the council some real priority.

Perhaps the latter’s heads of government should meet more frequently, to probe the economic and political unknowns that are consequences of Brexit, and to try to chart a way forward.

The strains on this co-operative structure will become even more testing if Scotland moves towards a second referendum on independence. But its survival and development are now an imperative. We are moving from a world in which the relationship between Britain and Ireland was contained within a common Europe-wide structure. Both countries and all parts of these islands urgently need a replacement.


I agree with him warmly.


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  • Jag

    Isn’t it remarkable how staunchly opposed to a Scottish referendum and independence, the Westminster government is.

    Do we really accept that Westminster is an honest broker in a Border Poll and reunification here.

    Border Poll now!

  • George

    If there is ever a border poll and it’s 51% in favour of unification will the media start calling unionists “remoaners”?

  • Enda

    That’s a good point actually. In a 50 + 1 scenario it would be interesting to see if the Great British public would empathize with northern Unionists. Doubtful.

  • Nevin

    “The main one will be about institutional arrangements between Britain and Ireland. The blunt truth is that much of the former is orientated towards one big city, London, from which the rest of the country can feel a very long way away.”

    Goodman’s article is a truly slovenly piece of political labelling. Why couldn’t he have brought a small measure of clarity by consistent branding?

    London, or more particularly Westminster, isn’t the only power bubble across these islands; just the biggest and most powerful.

    I live in the back of beyond and its been fascinating to observe the discomforting effects caused by our changes in local government. For example, the nationalist majority Moyle has been absorbed into the unionist majority Causeway Coast and Glens; some nationalist noses are severely out of joint and some unionist gobs are gloating in a ‘they don’t like it up ’em’ manner. The former big fish in Ballycastle are now small fish in Coleraine – and those in Bushmills are still tiddlers!

  • Yussarian

    Brian – your piece is right on the money. It must be hard for but the staunchest unionist to approve of any of this and the complete disinterest and ironically, “tunnel-vision” shown for NI in particular should be something that most people in NI can agree on.

  • the rich get richer

    Why not have a border poll . It would give people in Northern Ireland something to be getting on with while Theresa May is doing the Brexit negotiations……..

    The Northern Political parties might actually have to produce some policies………..Whether people like it or not the Scottish independence referendum enlivened Scottish politics and engaged many people….

    What are the Unionists and British government afraid of…………………..

  • Simian Droog
  • Jag

    I seem to remember the Westminster government saying in the 1990s they “have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”.

    Surely the same applies with Scotland? More so, given the supposed deficit in Scotland (which the Scottish could sort out in a couple of years, perhaps with IMF assistance).

  • Gavin Smithson

    Why aren’t councils run along consociational structure a la Stormont?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    There’s no ‘if’ about it – Scotland will have a second referendum, just as the horrendous consequences of Brexit become obvious to all. They will be ‘horrendous’ because the UK side are a) almost literally ‘mad’ for Brexit, b) they have very little in the way of competent negotiators and c) because basically May and her cabinet are incompetents. Things are looking good for an Independence vote. Time for a May-lacking NI to get on the bandwagon.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Are you referring to the rotational positions that exist in some councils but not in others?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The same does not apply in Scotland. Westminster have gained greatly from the oil – and a new field has just been discovered off Shetland. They need somewhere to park their nuclear “deterrent”. And finally, the myth of a Scotland dependent on subsidies is just that – a myth. They benefit all right, otherwise they would not be so keen to talk down independence. NI, fortunately or not, is in a different position.

  • Skibo

    If you read the GFA, I believe lobbying from Westminster would be prohibited. It strictly says it will be for the people of Ireland only to decide.
    “(ii) recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment”

  • Salmondnet

    Not doubtful. Unthinkable. Nor would the English public feel more than a passing twinge of sentimental regret if Scotland were to vote for independence. We understand that a majority in NI and Scotland do not want Brexit. We accept your right to choose not to join us, but we aren’t going to change our minds.

    There really isn’t anything more to discuss. Scotland and NI will have to decide on their own priorities.

  • Skibo

    The removal of Trident from Scottish shores will open up further oil fields not explored on safety reasons.

  • 1729torus

    Most likely outcome? UK is forced to join the EEA¹ and Scotland gets more powers. Welsh Labour becomes increasingly nationalist. The UK doesn’t fall apart, but slowly loosens into an EU-style confederation.

    English regions join the British-Irish council, which increasingly becomes a forum for discussing trade and foreign policy related issues. As a result, Ireland invests more effort into the BIC.

    The gradual and cumulative economic loss from EEA vs EU makes people think that leaving was a silly idea, but they don’t come crawling back. The EU integrates further in terms of strengthing the Single Market, that the UK can’t take advantage of.

    Ireland integrates with France more to diversify economically. The relationship is amicable, but like Corsica, we find Paris to bit overbearing and many French people think we’re gangsters.

    ¹In this context, “EEA” should be seen as a shorthand for a variety of broadly similar outcomes. Instead you might have a 5-year transitional deal where the UK stays in the Single Market followed by some kind of CETA/EFTA+ deal. The UK would still have large immigration.

  • Charlie Farlie

    David Davis’ letter leaked this morning is interesting in the extreme. Not because of him stating the obvious that if Reunification happened we would remain members of the EU whereas Scotland would have to join the queue, but for the fact that for the first time a Tory minister has verbalised that the Tory party would facilitate this without problem if it was the majority wishes. Seems to me, the British are starting plans for Unification of Ireland, or de-unification of Northern Ireland from their perspective.

  • Surveyor

    Just read that pro-Brexit Tory MPs have walked out of a parliament committee meeting in protest at a report written by Hilary Benn. There’s not even agreement in England and yet we’re expected to pull together for the “good of the Union old chap”. Border poll now.

  • AntrimGael

    If Unionists were ever in any doubt about London’s indifference and total disinterest in them Teresa May’s non appearance in the wee six during her tour of ‘the Union’ should be the ultimate confirmation. She doesn’t give a monkey’s about them and even staunch Tories like Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail have stated that Unionists aren’t even British anyway.
    Then again was Unionism’s flag waving and No Surrender stance over the ages MORE about religious fundamentalism and keeping a hold of their own wee sectarian fiefdom? Was this declared chest beating, drum thumping and roaring NO SURRENDER REALLY about the ‘Union’?
    Unpalatable as it is for Unionists many people across the sea find the bigoted, intolerance and raw sectarianism on display at the Twelfth and Unionist/Loyalist rallies, parades, marches totally abhorrent and nothing to do with their sense of Britishness.

  • Sharpie

    And you can imagine how significant Causeway Coast and Glens is in the world of London-centric Brexit priorities.

  • 1729torus

    Perhaps the latter’s heads of government should meet more frequently, to probe the economic and political unknowns that are consequences of Brexit, and to try to chart a way forward.

    The strains on this co-operative structure will become even more testing if Scotland moves towards a second referendum on independence. But its survival and development are now an imperative. We are moving from a world in which the relationship between Britain and Ireland was contained within a common Europe-wide structure. Both countries and all parts of these islands urgently need a replacement.

    The BIC is sufficient. I don’t like how Brexit is being used to chance the arm with British influence in Ireland. E.g UK officials at Irish ports, or straight out demands that Dublin should spend all its political capital in the EU to represent London. By this point its less hassle to start diversifying to France as necessary.

  • Korhomme

    Theresa May misconstrues the Union as an English commonwealth

    Indeed so, but not a commonwealth; there is no equality. The first union, with Scotland, relates as much as anything to the ‘dual monarchy’ of England and Scotland, though it was never thought of as such. (And that union produced the Kingdom of Great Britain.)

    Meanwhile, Ireland was and is England’s oldest colony. The English saw what happened with the American colonies; the usual bribery, threats and gongs produced a second union to produce the ‘United Kingdom of GB and I’ to prevent any threats of ‘independence’.

    So many little Englanders and Brexiters still think in this way; that Ireland, or the remnant that they still ‘own’ is a colony, one where the imbecilic natives can’t be trusted to run things (they might be right in this), yet a colony where all the wealth has been extracted leaving an empty husk that they no longer want, but don’t know what to do with.

  • 1729torus

    In the wake of article 50 being implemented and the Brexit talks beginning, the British government needs to start giving the conference and the council some real priority.

    If May fails to show at the next BIC conference, it’ll show Ireland, Wales, and Scotland that she just doesn’t care.

  • Ciarán Doherty

    The “leak” from DD’s office that a UI would result in immediate re-joining of the EU for NI is no doubt like most leaks, not a leak at all but rather deliberate PR, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more and more nods of encouragement to the population of NI to go ahead and get on with UI already.

    The crisis that NI poses to Westminster is not how to keep NI in the Union despite Brexit, but how to carry on with Brexit despite NI, and if the easiest solution would be to get rid of it entirely then the majority of English politicians would be more than happy to see the back of it.

    Even the Tories.

    This all needs to be a serious wake up call to unionists. Nevermind anything that happened over the last 100+ years, quite frankly it’s all completely irrelevant in the face of the cold hard economic reality of Brexit. Time to get real and get on with being a major player in a modern European nation with which you share an island, rather than a neglected, impoverished periphery of a country in the grip of English nationalism that regards you as scrounging foreigners.

  • Korhomme

    I got an email from Disqus; it had a response to the above from Ciarán Doherty. Where has his reply gone?

  • Korhomme

    (Your reply to my comment has vanished; but, thanks anyway.)

  • Ciarán Doherty

    “Detected as spam” apparently, it might reappear lmao.

  • Simian Droog

    So the BBC will be blocked?

  • Gavin Crowley

    If the BIC became a kind of Bundesrat, with votes and a winning side, then it might be possible to expand its remit. At present it’s voluntary and works on a pick ‘n mix basis.
    Given the shaky prospects for the House of Lords and the Seanad, their replacement with a shared Revising Chamber to act as a second chamber for each of the countries and the devolved ‘territories’ seems plausible. It would have delaying power only, but with a right to propose legislation. A forum to maintain some consistency.

  • 1729torus

    I’m going to sound harsh, but you have to apply the same strict scrutiny to any kind of Federal UK as a United Ireland:

    Why would Ireland tolerate the possibility of being outvoted? Or accept the idea that english people are needed to help keep Irish legislators on a leash?

    This is a very strong proposed power, letting England propose legislation for Ireland. RoI would be a dominion.

  • Gavin Crowley

    I’m really pointing out that the BIC doesn’t have much room to grow without heading into this type of territory.
    (Once a Seanad proposal is accepted with amendments by the Dáil it becomes a Dáil proposal. It’s origins in the Seanad are forgotten. It’s not as strong a power of proposal as it perhaps first appears.)

    A benefit of the EU is that it helps keep our politicians on a leash. I suspect an independent Scotland would have need of a leash in its early years as I suspect the opposition would take quite a few years to adjust and become effective.
    What the BIC recognises is that we all have an interest in the policies and legislative proposals of the other parts of the islands, and we need a forum in which we can interfere in each others affairs without raising prickles.