Promised a “devolution revolution” by Prime Minister David Cameron following the failed 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Scotland now finds itself at the whim of a Westminster government that has little interest in hearing its concerns. Much like Ireland a century before, the Scottish might have expected something in return for their show of loyalty to the United Kingdom. Instead, they have been dragged out of the European Union against their will, refused a voice in the subsequent negotiations and repeatedly denied the right to hold a second independence referendum, despite 20 polls in a row showing majority support for it. Many of us in Ireland naturally sympathise with our neighbours and we must now consider how Scottish independence might affect our own country.
It is no secret that the history of Ireland has long been intertwined with that of our north-eastern neighbour. Whether it be our common Gaelic heritage, centuries of long mutual migration or common membership, first of the United Kingdom and then of the EU, our two countries have rarely been apart. This closeness poses both opportunity and danger for the Republic however, as events in Scotland will have a particularly deep impact on the fate of Northern Ireland (NI), where reunification now enjoys broadly equal support to remaining in the UK.
“It is therefore incredibly disappointing to see that prime-minister Boris Johnson outright refuses to countenance another referendum.”
It is of the utmost importance for peace on the island of Ireland that any future referendum on Scottish independence is conducted in a clear and legal manner, as if carried out well, it might very well set the framework down for a border poll in Northern Ireland. It is therefore incredibly disappointing to see that Prime Minister Boris Johnson outright refuses to countenance another referendum. His refusal to do so despite clear popular support for independence in Scotland pushes the country in a dangerous direction, as Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) will likely seek to unilaterally hold a referendum following the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections in which the SNP is likely to receive a majority. One need look no further than the chaos that followed the unauthorised 2017 Catalonian independence referendum to see where this could lead. With peace in Northern Ireland already hanging by a thread because of unionist opposition to the NI Protocol, such instability in Scotland could spill over and result in a return to violence in the north-east of our country.
The danger that instability in Scotland could reignite the sparks of civil strife in the North is only one possibility however, and it could be avoided completely if Boris Johnson consents to an authorised referendum. A well-run, authorised referendum campaign could set the tone for a border poll in Northern Ireland and one would expect Irish nationalists and unionists alike to pay close attention.
“There is a clear role here for third-level educational institutions such as Trinity, as the cultural and political diversity of universities in both jurisdictions makes them perfect grounds for inter-community discussion and debate.”
While a referendum campaign alone would therefore clearly affect Ireland, a vote for Scottish independence would almost certainly make reunification inevitable. Right now, many unionists are dismayed at the introduction of the NI protocol. Antipathy towards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK has long been the norm in England; it is difficult to imagine any English government, weakened by the loss of Scotland, willing to continue to subsidise the costly region. Unionists are nonetheless of course likely to remain suspicious of the prospect of reunification and while demographic trends favour the nationalist vote, we must still attempt to persuade members of both communities of unity’s merits. There is a clear role here for third-level educational institutions such as Trinity, as the cultural and political diversity of universities in both jurisdictions makes them perfect grounds for inter-community discussion and debate.
However, Scottish independence would not only affect us in Ireland through its impact on Northern Ireland. An independent Scotland would almost certainly apply for membership of the European Union and could become an important Irish ally in the EU. Were Scotland to be accepted into the EU, its position as a highly educated, English-speaking nation within the world’s largest single market and customs union would be similar to that of Ireland, and Scots might very well attempt to imitate the Irish economic model driven by foreign direct investment (FDI). In such a situation, Scotland could become a key ally for Ireland in opposing issues such as the EU tax harmonisation favoured by France’s Emmanuel Macron and join with Ireland on fishing and agricultural debates. Having Scotland as a fellow EU member-state might also go some way towards easing unionist fears by ensuring free movement of people, goods and services between our two countries and its smooth accession to the EU is therefore imperative. Once again we return here to the importance of an authorised referendum, as the only obstacle to Scottish membership would likely be fears in Spain that accepting an unauthorised referendum would embolden Catalan separatists.
“An independent Scotland would almost certainly apply for membership of the European Union and could become an important Irish ally in the EU.”
As is now clear, a vote for Scottish independence would indisputably alter the nature of Irish politics forever. This may well seem daunting to some, given the possible dangers that lie in disturbing the constitutional situation of Northern Ireland, yet if we in Ireland fail to prepare for the effects Scotland’s exit from the UK would have we run the risk that events will overtake us. Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster for both Ireland and Scotland, but it also provides us with an opportunity to build new relations with one another. The Irish government has already taken positive steps in preparing for reunification by ensuring that students in Northern Ireland retain access to the Erasmus+ programme and that the general NI population can access EU health insurance. We must now also begin to prepare for the possibility of an independent Scotland and recognise that in many ways, it could be our most important ally for decades to come.