Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Post-Brexit: Will the Kingdom stay united?

Sturgeon has sought a second poll for Scotland, and the idea of Ireland reuniting has been raised again – but none of this is quite as it seems.

The sun settng on a statue of Edward Carson, a prominent unionist, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Jauary 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Charles McQuillan)
The sun settng on a statue of Edward Carson, a prominent unionist, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Jauary 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Charles McQuillan)
Published 31 Mar 2017 

British Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to send the formal notice to Brussels that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union within the next two years has ignited restiveness on the fringes of the Kingdom.

Scotland voted by 55% to 45% to remain in the Union in September 2014, just under two years before the UK voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU. Having described the 2014 vote as 'once in a generation', the Scottish National Party (SNP) has now redefined the term – a 'generation' now appears to come every four or five year, as SNP Leader and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has expressed a wish to have another poll by 2019.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland, whose population voted to remain in the EU like the Scots, has had stalemated assembly elections in the last month. The idea of Irish unity has been raised once more, as were Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland (a member of the EU since 1973), the question of leaving the EU would not eventuate.

However, none of this is quite as it seems.

To take the more straightforward question of Ireland first: the six historic Irish counties that are part of the United Kingdom do indeed return a substantial number of assembly members from the republican party Sinn Fein; but it is far from certain that at any stage in the near future they would vote to join the Republic (as the Good Friday Agreement gives them the right to do), because the largesse pumped into Northern Ireland from Westminster would be unlikely to be matched by Dublin. The Irish Republic was seriously hit by the economic crisis of 2008 – it has experienced years of serious austerity since, and is barely back on its feet. The last thing the Irish government wants is to take responsibility for Northern Ireland, because it would cripple it economically.

Ireland could suffer when Britain leaves the EU due to of the amount of trade it does with the UK – Irish exports that go to the UK (13% of total exports) would be at risk if the EU imposes tariffs on post-Brexit Britain and Britain retaliates. Some are so concerned about this that they have even suggested Ireland may have to leave the EU eventually as well. Its largest export partner is the US, which takes 26% of its exports, and with which Britain is attempting to enter into a lucrative trade deal.

Ireland is also under attack from Brussels for the main plank of the economic policy that has spurred its recovery: a low 12.5% corporation tax rate that has attracted numerous big businesses to set up in the Republic. Ireland has objected to a European Commission proposal to implement a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base across the EU.

The Scots who want independence have a different set of problems. The Scottish Parliament agreed to seek Westminster's permission for a second referendum by just 69 votes to 59. Opinion polls in Scotland suggest that a second referendum would be lost. Sturgeon believes that Brexit will be bad for Scotland (though this is an assertion she seems unable to quantify) and hopes that the evidence of that damage will be enough to persuade more Scots to vote for independence. However, the real economic damage to Scotland has already been done, during its membership of the EU as part of the UK. Its financial services industry was devastated by the 2008 crash, led by the abysmally-managed Royal Bank of Scotland, and the price of oil is now so low that a Scotland dependent on revenues from it would be insolvent.

May has made it clear there will be no referendum in the near future. Her emphasis has been on pulling the post-Brexit nation together rather than pull it apart. She has the good fortune that most Scots do not share their First Minister's desire for a referendum, and has been able to promise all three devolved regions of the UK (the third being Wales, whose people supported Brexit) that when Brussels finally repatriates powers to Britain many of those powers would be passed on to the devolved assemblies. May can promise Scotland even more clout after Brexit than it has now.

The biggest problem of all for Scotland is one it does not share with Northern Ireland. Should the Six Counties ask to join the Republic they will go straight into the EU, because Ireland is in the EU. But if Scotland leaves the Union with the rest of Great Britain it has to apply for EU membership from scratch. There is quite a long potential queue of nations wishing to join and it is far from certain that Scotland would go to the head of that queue. Indeed, countries such as Spain (which is threatened with the breakaway of Catalonia) and Belgium (with its divisions between Flemings and Walloons) have a very strong interest in Scotland not being given preferential treatment in order not to encourage separatism, and have already voiced it.

Scotland could always apply to join the Republic of Ireland, of course. Madder things are happening in Europe at the moment.

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