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the good information project

Scotland and its elections are key to the union and to a united Ireland

Northern Ireland’s place in the Union could be decided for it, if Scotland decides its future is better in the EU, rather than the UK.

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This article is part of The Good Information Project, a new initiative from The Journal to help create greater understanding of big issues we face. This month we are focusing on the question ‘What could a shared island look like?’

THERE IS AN ancient affinity between Ireland and Scotland. Two Celtic nations with a history of rebellion against the English monarchy, and a fondness for whiskey.

Post-Brexit, that cultural and historical empathy is more political – Scotland’s future decision at the ballot box could shape the island of Ireland’s future.

But a Yes vote in a second Scottish indy ref is still a difficult thing to achieve, even post-Brexit. Polls are currently on a knife-edge, and history shows that such close referendums default to the status quo. 

“This is where the parallels with the North of Ireland come in,” Alyn Smith, a Scottish National Party MP for Stirling, and a former MEP tells The Journal.

“We’re very conscious that we want to win big, we need to win big. We need to persuade a lot more people than are persuaded.”

For voters who are unsure – they are likely to default to Scotland remaining in the Union. 

Polls are dangerous indicators of what voters will do: it’s easier to vote ‘Yes’ to independence in theory than in practice. They are also the most likely catalyst for a second indy ref, so are worth keeping a critical eye on.

The most recent poll by Panelbase for the Sunday Times found 49% support for independence among Scottish voters, as opposed to 44% who wished to remain part of the UK, with 7% undecided.

This was the 20th poll in a row to show a majority in favour of Scottish independence – which is substantially different to the polling ahead of the 2014 vote.

Smith adds: “When we started the independence referendum campaign in 2013, we were barely 30% – we got it to 45%. So I think during the campaign, there would be a boost for the pro-independence side.”

Interestingly, three out of four Scottish voters thought Scotland would be independent within the next 10 years.

Smith says their independence offering is now economically stronger because of Brexit:

“Our proposition would be an independent state within the European Union. We get back freedom of movement. Access to the Single Market will put rocket boosters on the Scottish economy. We will have a more complex border [with England] at Carlisle, but we’ll know what that is, and that’ll only impact upon goods, it won’t impact on services or people because what maintain the Common Travel Area.”

If Scotland does become an independent state, this would almost surely accelerate preparations for a border poll here.

Without Scotland’s place in the Union, closest geographically to the North, Northern Ireland’s place in it would face greater scrutiny.

Scotland leaving the Union would “undermine what it means to be a unionist”, says Donnacha Ó Beacháin, Associate Professor of Politics at DCU’s School of Law & Government.

“Ultimately, that’s the core of the identity of being a Unionist – but if the union no longer exists, you’re being loyal to a cause that is no longer there, you become a living anachronism in a way.”

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has said that if her party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), get a majority after a general election on 6 May, that she will press ahead with preparations for a second independence referendum – even if its without Westminster’s agreement.

The 2014 Scottish indy ref

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Of course, Scotland has been here before. 

In 2012, then-Prime Minister David Cameron granted Scotland a referendum on its place in the Union, after several motions and legislative proposals by the Scottish National Party in the Holyrood parliament in previous years.

Referendums on the future of devolved governments within the Union are, officially, within the power of Westminster to grant – similar to the UK Government’s power to decide when would be time to hold a border poll on the island of Ireland.

What followed was quite a profound, detailed debate about what Scotland would become as an independent nation, with Yes Scotland arguing for independence, and Better Together arguing in favour of staying in the Union.

The strength of Scotland’s economy, what currency an independent Scotland would use, and the UK’s Trident defence system – which had a missile base in Scotland – became regular topics during the debate. 

A blueprint for what an independent Scotland could look like – the 670-page Scotland’s Future – was published and circulated, so that those who voted ‘Yes’ knew exactly what that entailed.

Citing an example, Alyn Smith explains how Scottish citizens would have had dual nationality, and could have chosen to have a Scottish passport and a British one.

“Most people in Scotland were probably looking for what was called ‘Devo Max’,” says Professor Ó Beacháin of 2014, “which was a maximum form of devolution: more powers for Scotland. Only about a third wanted independence, but even less were happy with the status quo.

“Tony Blair thought by bringing devolution to Scotland at the end of the 1990s that he was ending the question, when in fact we now know that actually it animated people in Scotland and gave them a focus.”

“Similarly the referendum had the same effect - they went from having a third to, in the last two weeks, actually in some opinion polls coming out on top.

That’s what prompted this frenetic activity: David Cameron visiting Scotland; Gordon Brown visiting Scotland. He had a huge impact because, of course, as a [former] Scottish UK Prime Minister – which is a rare bird – he was seen as a sign that Scotland actually could achieve things within the Union.

As Ó Beacháin references above, two days before the referendum vote and as polls swayed in favour of Yes, Cameron  made a sudden trip to Aberdeen and delivered an emotional plea to the Scottish public to reject an independent Scotland: “There’s no going back from this. No re-run. This is a once-and-for-all decision.

“Independence would not be a trial separation, it would be a painful divorce,” he said, and listed a number of things that he said would change: the currency, the armed forces and pensions would be “sliced up – at some cost” and previously pooled resources would come from Scotland alone.

On 18 September 2014, Scotland’s 4.3-million-strong electorate were asked the question:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

The result was 55% No, 44.7% Yes, with a turnout of 84.5%. The No vote was strongest in areas all along Scotland’s border with England, and in its islands. The Yes vote was strongest in Glasgow and Dundee.

“The ‘Yes’ campaign lost because – to borrow the phrase that Brexiteers use – it lost because of Project Fear,” Professor Ó Beacháin said, adding that it was a “fear of the unknown”.

“I was in Scotland for the referendum and remember one leaflet in particular…it said something along the lines of ‘Don’t risk your job, your pension, the pound, the NHS, your future. If you don’t know, vote no.’
“But now, it’s fear of being left out of the European Union. It’s fear of being left behind. Being left alone with English Tories and being condemned, as Scottish people have become used to, of constantly voting against Conservative rule and constantly ending up with a Conservative government in Westminster, in perpetuity.”

Unlike the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement, there is no legal barrier to holding another referendum within the next seven years, or any other timeframe (though the then-SNP leader Alex Salmond said it was a “once in a generation” vote) in Scotland.

But the current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said as recently as 28 January that another indy ref isn’t on the table: “I think that talking about another referendum is really not the priority of people.”

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Brexit and Scotland

Since Salmond’s ‘once-in-a-generation’ argument, Brexit moved the goalposts.

The June 2016 vote has been used as an argument in favour of holding another Scottish Independence ballot, with its proponents claiming that the entire meaning of being in the union has changed.

“Of Scotland’s MPs, MEPs and MSPs, there was only three MSPs, and one MEP who were pro Brexit,” Alyn Smith says, who adds that he won votes from people who are pro-European Union, but not pro-independence. 

“Brexit was really was a minority sport – it shocked a lot of people and the democratic deficit within the UK has become really clear.”

Compare and contrast

When asked about the similarities between Scotland and the North, Smith says he doesn’t believe there are similarities between nationalists in Northern Ireland and nationalists in Scotland.

“What the Northern Irish nationalists are looking for is reunification with something that exists. We’re looking to take all the powers to ourselves. So there’s quite a bit of psychology there that’s different,” he says.

But his party is “conscious” that its actions have “echoes in the North”: “We’re working hard on making sure that people don’t feel threatened by an independent Scotland and people don’t feel uncomfortable.

I’m really conscious that what we’re doing is of considerable relevance to the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Because, Great Britain without Scotland isn’t Great Britain anymore. Many folks in Belfast especially are looking at Glasgow as a sister city. There are a lot of links – actually, there’s a lot of people in Glasgow who would far rather visit Belfast than visit Edinburgh!

Prof Ó Beacáin agrees: “Most Northern Irish unionists would have a much greater attachment and affinity to Scotland than they would to England.

“[In 2014] The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Tom Elliott described the Scottish Nationalist Party as ‘a greater threat to the Union than the IRA had been’. So they recognise what this means: that they would by themselves dismantle the Union. Scotland is pivotal and if Scotland goes, it will have a domino effect.”

Ó Beacháin also questioned whether ‘nationalist’ is the best description for the SNP, and adds that data has indicated a significant number of SNP voters didn’t vote for Scottish independence. Nationalists in Scotland and in the north are closer to kind of civic nationalism, he says.

“If you look at Europe as a whole, nationalism in Hungary or in Poland or places like that, it tends to be much more exclusive. You have to speak the language, you have to have the right religion, you have to be born in the place, and you don’t find that among the nationalists in Scotland or Northern Ireland.”

‘In 2014, the EU said an independent Scotland couldn’t use the euro’

Another core part of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was whether Scotland could rejoin the European Union as an independent state – and tetchy responses from the European Union formed a huge part of the debate. 

Ahead of the 2014 referendum, David Cameron had lobbied European leaders to drum up support for Westminster’s campaign to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. 

José Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, told the BBC in 2014 that an independent Scotland joining the EU would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”. It was also argued that Spain would veto an independent Scotland’s application for membership because of the campaign in Catalonia for independence. 

Prof Ó Beacáin said:

“They were told ‘If you want to stay in the European Union, you’ll have to stay in the United Kingdom, it’s your only way’. A classic example of that was what currency would an independent Scotland use: the British made clear that they would not be afforded their preferred option of using Sterling. Of course, the European Commission and the European Union said they couldn’t use the euro, so they were left with this huge gaping hole in their proposal.”

“The SNP and Nicola Sturgeon are quite cogently arguing that the only way that Scotland can maintain the status quo [is to vote for an independent Scotland],” says Prof Ó Beacháin.

So now it’s appealing not just to people who want change, but also people who are happy with the status quo of Scotland being in the European Union.

If another Scottish independence referendum is held, it’s likely that European Union membership will feature strongly again.

Smith again: “[An independent Scotland would] be part of the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union, and English speaking, and conveniently located for access to North America, and vice versa.

“So we’ve got all the advantages that, frankly, you guys have got that we’ll be putting front and centre of the economic case for independence.”

A crucial indyref hiccup: The Holyrood scandal

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Just a month out from the crucial Scottish general election on 6 May, the SNP-led devolved government has been embroiled in a scandal over how it handled allegations of harassment against the former SNP leader and former First Minister Alex Salmond.

An independent inquiry, carried out by Ireland’s former Director of Public Prosecutions James Hamilton, found that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code in her handling of the allegations.

In a separate finding, the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaint concluded that Sturgeon misled a Scottish Parliament committee.

It said there was a “fundamental contradiction” in her evidence on whether she agreed to intervene in a Scottish Government investigation into complaints by two woman against Salmond. In a meeting at her Glasgow home on 2 April 2018, Sturgeon “did in fact leave Salmond with the impression that she would, if necessary, intervene”, the committee’s report found.

The votes were five in favour of that verdict, and four against the finding that she misled the committee: with all four votes by SNP members of the Scottish Parliament. 

Though Sturgeon has since survived a motion of no confidence over her involvement, the impact of the controversy was almost immediate: her predecessor and former mentor Alex Salmond has set up his own pro-independence party, Alba.

The party has indicated that it will not contest areas where the SNP are running candidates, so as not to split the vote in the first-past-the-post electoral system, but it will contest the ‘list’ part of the ballot, where the SNP can’t gain more seats.

Polls carried out before this controversy had indicated that the SNP were in line for a huge landslide in May’s elections, and could gain 70 seats out of 129 – a seven seat-increase on 2016.

A recent YouGov poll asked 1,100 people aged over 16 in Scotland their voting intention, and found that 52% of young people would vote for the SNP. That compares to 22% for the Scottish Conservatives.

If the SNP do gain a majority after the May election, it could force the UK government to take legal action to stop a referendum being held without its ‘permission’ – though that could galvanize support for Scottish independence even further.

Some things will change, and some won’t

Of the differences that this debate has to the talk of a shared or united Ireland, Dr Éamon Phoenix told The Journal

Remember that Scottish nationalism is very very different to Irish nationalism, it’s not nearly as emotional: 99% of the land in Scotland today is owned by the landed gentry.

“Could you see that being the case in any part of Ireland today? Where the Earl of Wicklow and the Earl of Derbyshire still owned most of these counties? There would be another civil rights movement. So it’s a different type of nationalism.”

Stirling MP Alyn Smith adds to that: “It’s SNP policy that we will keep the Queen as head of state of an independent Scotland, and – for particularly the orange end of the spectrum – the idea that an independent Scotland would be a republic would be absolute anathema red line. So, we will maintain the Queen as head of state.

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“And then I daresay there might be a push towards a republican discussion thereafter once we’re independent. Our proposition meantime is ‘The Queen is the Queen. We don’t propose to change that’. I look forward to Scotland joining the Commonwealth.

“Making those sorts of overtures that some stuff will change – but not everything – is, I think, quite reassuring to what we would increasingly call the loyalist community.

“Identities are obviously very important for a lot of people. But you’ll still be able to be British. The Queen will still be here to stay. Rangers football club will continue to play!”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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