I think it’s fair to say that whatever constitutional complexities were brought about by devolution, namely the West Lothian Question, now pale into insignificance compared to the impending Brexit crisis. The fair old lady that is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has never looked so fragile, and history would seem to suggest that fragility is often followed by fundamental change. The current iteration of the union dates back to 1922 when the Irish Free State seceded from the UK after the Irish War of Independence, which also saw the partition of Ireland and ultimately led to The Troubles in Northern Ireland during the latter part of the last century. Today, incidentally, saw the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party almost equal the unionist DUP in terms of seats in the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly.
It presents a picture of increasing fragility, but it also shines a democratic spotlight on all of the old issues that have never been truly resolved. No amount of treaties and agreements have ever managed to make Northern Ireland work. Even in the last two decades, since the Troubles concluded, the power sharing assembly has often failed to function and has always been a fractious affair. The legacy of British involvement in Ireland has been division and strife. Sinn Féin’s electoral success this week perhaps, just maybe, is a sign of the Northern Irish people moving beyond their entrenched positions in the great divide, and that may, in turn, propel the Ireland debate beyond the traditional rivalry of the past into something that can be discussed openly and logically. If that were to happen, even the most loyally British Northern Irelanders might see some of the potential benefits of a united Ireland. The risk that Brexit poses to the Northern Ireland border? Solved. Different currencies on either side of it? Solved. A power-sharing legislature that has past its usefulness? Well, it would no longer be required. And a division that has persisted through generations? Well, that might finally begin to be healed.
What would it take to get to that point? A sensible, national conversation, that breaks away from the constraints of tradition, still feels like a stretch. Some of the political parties are still actively fostering the divide — Arlene Foster, being a good example. It’s feasible that they could be forced into a progressive discussion should Scotland finally do what it’s been threatening for decades. That is, of course, vote for independence and secede from the union itself. If Scotland were to go it alone, the people of Northern Ireland would surely need to re-examine their status as the remaining Celtic nation in a union that they have little in common with. Picture this: an independent and united Ireland, and an independent Scotland, both standing with our European neighbours, and an independent England & Wales standing with themselves. It feels like we’re moving closer towards this outcome, and it would finally put to rest much of the constitutional mess, and social and political discontent, associated with the United Kingdom as it currently stands.
Of course, this vision is not one of utopia and it does, to a degree, merely shift problems around and create new ones. For example, now that we’ve dodged the bullet of a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, due to the former having been dissolved, we’re now looking at a physical border between Scotland and England instead. It’s the same, intractable quandary of having two closely related neighbours divided by a European wall, with fundamentally different immigration policies. The Common Travel Area of the British Isles that we’ve enjoyed since 1923 seems incompatible. In other words, as well as an Anglo-Scottish border, it could also affect the British and Irish peoples’ right to settle anywhere on these islands. Having solved a problematic divide on the island of Ireland, we’ll have created one between the new England & Wales, and the newly constituted Ireland and Scotland.
Moreover, this somewhat assumes that Scotland successfully keeps its place in the EU, or manages to accede in its own right. As much as the Scottish people are pro-European, it’s possible that the representatives of nations like Spain might seek to reject them in their own self-interested attempt at discouraging separatist movements in places like Catalonia. By railing against the right of self-determination, Spain could keep Scotland and its people out of the European Union whereas Northern Ireland would get their wish to remain a part of it by merging with the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland would also get an easier path in terms of currency, in that there would only be one option and that would be convert to the euro. Scotland, as a brand new sovereign country, could adopt the euro, but it would do so unilaterally because it wouldn’t be officially a member of the eurozone in the beginning, or at all if it fails to accede to the EU. Another option might be a Scottish pound, which in all likelihood would be pegged to Pound Sterling, so indeed they continue to use Pound Sterling which the Scottish banks already produce. Scotland doesn’t have too much control over its currency currently as Scottish currency needs to be backed up in English currency, and interest rates are set independently by the UK’s central bank, which is the Bank of England. The currency debate is partially symbolic, but it will cause both emotional responses and practical concerns.
The economy generally is also a bigger challenge for a newly independent Scotland. With the currency barrier between Ireland and Northern Ireland gone, and perhaps increased trade and investment, Ulster might prosper like never before. Scotland, however, although only one million people smaller than the united Ireland, would be starting out in the era of global economics against a backdrop of dwindling oil revenues and lumbered with its share of UK national debt and no track record for credit worthiness. Scottish GDP is high, however, and the nation continues to innovate and grow its collective confidence. It should take a lesson or two from the Celtic Tiger, as it was pre-recession. With open trade with the EU, there’s enormous potential for exports from Scotland to the EU that could eclipse the volume exported to England. So, with independence, there might be short term pain, but there could also be long term gain. Future economics are notoriously difficult to predict.
Ultimately, the goal is ensuring that the people have, and feel like they have, power over their own destiny. I think it’s important for populations to have the ability to shape their corner of the world in a way that represents their local vision, while remaining outward looking and inclusive. The current populist rejection of supranational identity is inward looking and retrograde. But it’s the people’s choice. Let the people shape their own future, and work for their own future. Let them believe. Some will believe in raw capitalism, some will believe in their own superiority, some will revel in past glories. Others will uphold equality, see the world as partners, and push for better futures for all. And everything will change with time.
And, with change comes risk. But also, hopefully, reward. I think it is time to reshape these islands and I think it’s time for the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Create Ireland, Scotland, and England & Wales. Eventually, perhaps Wales will go its own way, too. In an ideal world, we’d find a way for Scotland to remain in the EU, and we’d find a way for that to be possible without a hard border between England and Scotland. We’d seek to govern more locally, and engage more broadly. The goal is not to split and divide, and it’s certainly not to put up borders and walls. The goal is to engage. The goal is to inspire.
Graham's blog: politics, poetry, and introspection