Scottish Independence and a United Ireland: A Brexit game of Gaelic Games?

Guest post by Dr Anthony Costello, lecturer in EU policy-making, Comparative European Government and Politics, Conflict and Conflict Resolution, and Irish and Northern Irish Politics at the Department of Government, University College Cork.

Nine months have passed since the British electorate voted to sever UK membership of the European Union (EU) and the Brexit negotiation process is still embroiled in uncertainty with a lack of clear political and administrative direction from all involved. EU member-states are trying to prepare themselves for the most difficult negotiation process ever to come before the European Council. At present, it appears that the UK and the EU (as an institutional whole) have clear understandings of their preferences. However, there are reasons to suggest that the situation is not that clear cut. Having no template to refer to for inspiration, politicians and eurocrats have no experience in dealing with Brexit. Having a lack of experience, UK and EU officials are not fully sure of what exactly they hope to achieve from the negotiations; nor are they sure how their rather broad and even vague preferences, can be reconciled on such a sensitive and complex matter. Of course, like most EU decision-making processes, national preferences are only realised and made known to negotiating counterparts as decision making processes mature and develop, and knowledge of the preferences of others are laid bare. Thus, allowing for responsive strategic planning.

Politically, Brexit poses a real threat to the very existence of the United Kingdom. In recent weeks, there has been a growth in irredentist and separatist rhetoric around the British Isles regarding the fate of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Such rhetoric is a direct product of the uncertainty surrounding the British government’s attitude in approaching the negotiations and a lack of confidence in its ability to secure a good Brexit deal, which works for everyone in the UK.  There is a dark irony in the fact that Brexit was meant to preserve the United Kingdom from globalising and supranational forces, but instead, it seems to be a fragmenting force.

Scotland voted to remain in the EU with an overwhelming 62% Yes vote. Recently, Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader and Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, give an unprecedented statement to the press outlining intentions to hold a second Scottish Independence Referendum. No clear date was issued in the statement, although it was indicated that the referendum would be held between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019. Coincidentally, the UK will formally leave the EU around March 2019, if Article 50 is triggered next week.

Scotland’s certainty in the UK is significantly challenged by discontent associated with the lack of political reform desired in the aftermath of the first Scottish referendum on independence. Discontent has only exacerbated the growing uncertainty pertaining to matters of Scottish political autonomy and economic opportunity in a post-Brexit Britain. There are some in Scotland who fear that Theresa May’s efforts in the Brexit negotiations will ignore the preferences of the majority in Scotland who voted to remain in the EU. At present, it is hard to imagine how Scotland would manage as a newly independent nation-state in a post-Brexit international order. The transition of power and general state-building is bound to place Scotland into a position of vulnerability, until necessary and adequate adjustments are made. State building is an art that can only be mastered with time and experience. Thus, the call for referendum is a curious development at this crucial time.

Like Scotland, the Northern Irish electorate voted to remain in the EU by a 55.8% Yes vote. Recently, Taoiseach Enda Kenny envisaged the possibility of a United Ireland arising from a bad Brexit deal. Like Scotland, it is anticipated that a bad deal could mean Northern Ireland will face challenges relating toeconomic and political autonomyin a post-Brexit Britain. Such consequences could see a possible revival in ethno-communal tensions and a weakening of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and subsequent Peace Process; as well as economic difficulties amongst small, yet vital, businesses on either side of the Northern Irish ‘border’. However, like the prospect of Scottish independence in a post-Brexit world, the notion of a United Ireland seems inconceivable considering the economic, and potentially turbulent political responsibilities that would be inherited by the Republic of Ireland.

If Scottish independence and a United Ireland are inconceivable political prospects in a post-Brexit world, then one must ask why such radical political prospects are given such consideration at this crucial time for Britain, Ireland and the rest of the EU? Perhaps such developments are merely indicative of a revival of good old fashioned Gaelic Games? Gaelic Games refer to the ways in which (predominantly) Ireland used domestic forces in the past, such as public opinion and referendums to influence negotiation outcomes to the position closest to irish national preferences in EU decision making processes. If the costs involved in establishing Scottish Independence and/or Irish Unity would be too great in a post-Brexit world, could it be possible that officials on either side of the British Isles are using Gaelic Games’ strategy to influence British and EU negotiation approaches and preferences prior to the Brexit negotiations to have their voices heard? It seems a likely scenario, but one in which only time will tell.

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