Some may remember a piece I wrote on March 24th, which was published here (https://talkingupscotlandtwo.com/2021/03/24/something-not-about-alex-nicola-or-even-james-hamilton/), which concluded “Call it what you want – collapse of a dysfunctional UK state, divorce, or whatever. It does though seem to me that a referendum is not necessarily going to be the only way forward.”
An event took place – or at least we had notice – in the last few days which may, in due course take this forward. That event – as the title suggests – is accession to, at least the power of DUP leader, if not FM of Edwin Poots.
While it would be ridiculous to describe the outgoing FM and Party Leader, Arlene Foster, as a liberal, it is fairly certain that she has been replaced by someone even less liberal, and more hard-line.
Poots, for instance, came to prominence twenty-five years ago with his opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. Many of his views are religiously inspired, including the fact that he thinks the Earth is 6000 years old, which illustrates the differences in belief systems in Northern Ireland and much of the rest of the UK (try to imagine a senior politician anywhere else in the UK making public this type of view).
These views also inspired his policy of banning gay men in Northern Ireland from donating blood, though the High Court overturned that as “irrational”. More importantly, after the Good Friday Agreement he opposed the reformation of the Police in Northern Ireland, including the replacement of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
But the most significant irritant in Northern Ireland politics just now, particularly for the Loyalist community, is the protocol on Northern Ireland that is part of the post Brexit trade deal between the UK and EU. This is part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, widely agreed to have brought peace to that historically highly troubled part of the world, but with the UK leaving the EU (something scarcely considered possible in 1998) creates a political Gordian Knot of considerable complexity.
The 1998 Agreement promises no borders on the island of Ireland, which as long as both were part of the EU was not problematic at all. However, when the UK decided to leave the EU, a hard border – of the type you will find between the UK and France for instance – would have to be set up between Northern Ireland (as part of the UK, no longer part of the EU) and the rest of Ireland (still an EU member).
The “solution” – the protocol – is to leave Northern Ireland, uniquely, as the one part of the UK which would remain subject to the requirements of the EU’s Single Market. The border between Ireland – all of it, including Northern Ireland – and the UK would therefore not be between the North and the south, but in the Irish Sea (at least nominally).
Johnson might have said “sod the Good Friday Agreement”. He might have taken the view that Theresa May did, that we joined the EU as a single entity, and we will leave in this way. The difficulty with this was that there remained political support for the Agreement, and in particular in the United States, where Biden made strong suggestions that a trade deal with the UK would be a non-starter if the Good Friday Agreement was broken.
To add to this, as Alex Kane (a political correspondent with the Belfast Telegraph) pointed out, is that a particular type of Britishness is core to the identity of much of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. In turn the protocol has led to Unionist trust in the UK government being at very close to an all-time historic low. Just today, as Emma Vardy reported on the BBC, a rally was held in Portadown protesting against the border being in the Irish sea.
While Alex Kane is informative about context, his argument that a border poll in Ireland is unlikely in the next 10 years as both governments consider the situation too unstable for this to happen, is just wrong. A great deal of political change takes place during and as a result of political instability. For instance Brexit has changed the UK. The USSR fell in a period of instability. Harold McMillan was once asked what the biggest problem facing a politician was, and answered “events, dear boy, events”. What reason does a government have for change when things are stable? It is when they are unstable and spiral out of control that things happen and things change. In other words, if Kane is right that both governments consider the situation too unstable, that makes a border poll all the more likely.
One complication for considering the future, is that while the DUP leader and FM in Northern Ireland have traditionally been the same person (eg Foster), Poots has said he doesn’t intend to stand as FM (though he has said he will talk to colleagues over this – we’ll see).
However, in any event, the first crisis will concern whether Poots (and the new FM if different) can come to a working relationship with the leader of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald. This is not impossible, after all Martin McGuiness and Iain Paisley were known as “The Chuckle Brothers”. However, if chuckling is at a premium, then there will be further strains.
Even more pertinent is whether the Loyalist community continue to put pressure on London to seek to bend the protocol, to end their “banishment” as they see it, from the rest of the UK (see twitter link above). If they don’t get it, or as much as they want, what comes next? Will Johnson have to abandon the protocol to satisfy the Loyalists? This would have the most serious economic and political consequences for all of the UK as there will be no trade agreement with the EU.
Kane seemed to suggest that a new leader would have to point out the political realities to his MPs and MLAs – that without the protocol there will be no EU trade agreement with the consequent economic harm this will cause. Fine. That’s quite clear.
The problem is that Kane imagines the politicians are “in charge”. But are they, or will they be? Will the DUP be able to convince the Loyalist community to, however unwillingly, accept the protocol? Or will the Loyalist community take matters into their own hands, forcing the MPs and MLAs, to cause difficulties for the Westminster Government in order to regain their own leadership role. Or will the DUP simply throw in their lot with the Loyalist community campaigning against the protocol?
At the same time, how will the nationalist community (actually now numerically larger than the Loyalist community in Northern Ireland as a whole) react? Will they take the opportunity to demand the border poll guaranteed in the Good Friday Agreement? Even if he has refused when Nicola Sturgeon asks for a second referendum in Scotland, could Johnson really refuse the same request in Northern Ireland, particularly with the full glare of international attention? And that’s before we get to how Westminster would react if there is a majority to reunify the island of Ireland?
We all know the constitution is contested in Scotland. It is also increasingly contested in Wales as well, as Labour FM, Mark Drakeford, has publicly said the current Union is dysfunctional, looking to negotiate a confederal solution which Westminster is by no means certain to concede. At the same time, Westminster is plotting to centralise the UK state in certain regards that is greater than anything since the advent of devolution.
Can the UK state survive this? How will it react if Wales choses to demand a renegotiated Union with a confederal structure, while Scotland moves to an independence referendum? While all this is going on there is a border poll which results in a majority for reintegration into the rest of the island of Ireland. Is the UK state not just strong enough, but is one of the most centralised states in the world, sufficiently adaptable, to survive this?
There are two ways the UK government could respond. One way, some would see as the traditional UK response – force and the use of soft power. Johnson has little difficulty with the House of Commons. Despite everything – Cummings statements, who paid for the wallpaper and everything else – the most recent Yougov poll suggests that if there were a General Election tomorrow little would change (other than the SNP would hoover up another 7 Scottish seats). Basically, Labour is back to where it was with Jeremy Corbyn at the end of 2019. A forceful response, hopefully short of Spanish practices – perhaps even going as far as repeal of the Scotland Act 1998 and repudiation of the Good Friday Agreement – would at least take away the platform for his opponents and allow peace to break out with the Loyalist community.
The difficulty of course is that for every action there is a reaction. The latter would mean all out economic war with the EU. It would also seriously damage the UK’s standing abroad to unilaterally end an Agreement which brought to an end years of killing. It would also increase exponentially international awareness and interest in the cause of Scottish independence.
Repeal of the Scotland Act would remove the platform, but, just as Osborne’s lecture to the Scots that they would not be allowed to use the Pound, many feel was one of the major factors in the slow drift to Yes in 2014, there has been a growing majority supporting Holyrood as an institution. Even Johann Lamont said that if Holyrood was threatened, she would seek to defend it. Therefore, to take it away peremptorily in this way is bound to increase support for independence still further.
In short if Johnson (or any successor) were to act in this way, it would be clear there is “no way back”. The question then becomes “what next”? No doubt a Royal Commission – or similar- would be suggested, in order to kick the issue of the Union a few years down the road.
Yet, given the growing support in England that if Scotland wants to be independent then we should be allowed to do so, is it possible that the Westminster government could have an outbreak of intelligence, negotiating the reunification of Ireland, the independence of Scotland and a new relationship with Wales (perhaps going as far as independence?).
Why? Well, what would you do? Would you struggle to control the other three parts of the Union to your will, at the same time as previously reliable foreign allies (eg the EU, the United States) are turning their backs on you? Or would you come to an accommodation?
In conclusion, watch Ireland. Two of the giants of UK politics – Gladstone and Lloyd George – were brought down by Ireland, so what chance does Boris have?