Deepening Political Divisions and Exacerbating Peripherality: Scotland, Northern Ireland and Brexit

Kirsty Hughes and Katy Hayward | 24 April 2018

© 2017 SCER

The two remain-voting areas of the UK face being hard-hit by Brexit. Brexit fears are different in several respects in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Most obviously, the peace process, the operation of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, and the future of the Irish border are existential issues for Northern Ireland; there is no equivalent set of concerns in Scotland.

But there are some important similarities between the two remain-voting areas. These centre on the impact so far of Brexit on political divisions in both, economic and social consequences (including questions around EU citizenship), and tensions between Westminster and the devolved regions and nations.

Lack of ‘Remain’ voice

There has been a remarkable lack of concern at UK level over the fact that two of the four constituent parts of the UK voted ‘Remain’. In both Northern Ireland and Scotland, the Remain voice has not been adequately represented since the vote. This is particularly the case in NI – where the absence of an executive and assembly has meant there is no proper representation for the range of views that exist there. This has been exacerbated by the unanticipated and disproportionate influence of the ‘Leave’-supporting DUP.

Although SNP MPs voted against triggering Article 50, the Scottish government has focused more on pushing for a ‘soft’ Brexit and on protecting devolved powers than on arguing to halt Brexit. But with both the Labour party and the Conservative government supporting Brexit – albeit with some Scottish Labour politicians still opposing a ‘hard’ Brexit – the two-thirds of Scottish voters who back Remain are not strongly heard at UK level.

In NI and Scotland, most voters would prefer a soft to a hard Brexit – but there has been no suggestion at UK level that such a compromise approach could be a way to reflect the range of views across the UK. Instead, Theresa May’s focus and priority have been on holding together a tenuous consensus in her divided cabinet. This underlines the image of a Brexit driven principally by English Conservatives to the neglect of wider interests across the UK.

Deepening political divisions

Despite the many differences between NI and Scottish politics, in both there are now deeper political divisions than before (albeit not only driven by Brexit).

In NI, with the loss of representation by middle-ground parties in Westminster, the two extremes are now in a stand-off: Sinn Féin supporting Irish unification and opposing Brexit, the DUP supporting Brexit and the union with Great Britain. The nature of power-sharing in Northern Ireland means that big decisions tend to be squeezed into the boundaries set by the limited extent to which the two polar extremes can bend to touch. As Brexit exacerbates the difference between these two hard lines – not least by bringing the spectre of the Irish border back to the forefront of political debate – it reduces both the scope and the likelihood of their ‘bending’ as needs be to find agreed policy.

In Scotland, the union versus independence divide has not shifted – the SNP (and Scottish Greens) support independence while Labour and Conservatives (and Lib Dems) oppose it and support the union. Debate around a ‘devo max’ middle ground had already all but disappeared after the 2014 independence referendum even before Brexit. But Brexit now adds to that division over independence – the SNP and Greens oppose Brexit, Conservatives and Labour support it (even while a majority of Labour voters do not). With the UK taking Scotland in a direction that most of the public do not support, the alienation of Scotland from the rest of the UK should be of great concern – however it appears that London’s attention would only be secured if there was growing support for Scottish independence.

Challenging and changing devolution

If the future UK-EU relationship is essentially a deep free trade agreement, then some specific arrangements will be needed in Northern Ireland in order to meet the commitments made by the UK and EU in the December Joint Report. The UK government (and DUP) have been reluctant to admit and address this directly – hence the lack of progress in talks in Brussels on Ireland/Northern Ireland. The working assumption of the government appears to be that greater internal differentiation in the UK would promote (rather than moderate) nationalist ambitions in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Indeed, the UK government’s emphasis on the unitary and centralised nature of UK politics works against rather than with the grain of devolved politics. From the insistence on bringing repatriated EU powers in devolved areas back to Westminster first, to the weak and limited consultation with the devolved administrations prior to decision-making and announcements on Brexit, devolution has been seen more as an irritation than as a central concern in planning Brexit.

This unsettling of devolution has been more pronounced in many ways in Northern Ireland, as seen in the absence of an executive, Theresa May’s confidence-and-supply arrangement with the DUP, and the border issue and Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. But an unsettling of devolution has also been felt in Scotland, and in Wales too.

The fact that Westminster (after the Supreme Court case at the end of 2016) had a vote on Article 50, but the devolved administrations did not, reinforces the impression that devolution remains in the gift of Westminster, rather than being a firmly entrenched part of a constitutionally devolved UK. The push for a unitary Brexit reinforces this, as does the stand-off over the EU Withdrawal bill; the essentially centralised nature of the UK political system has been firmly underlined.


Overall, Brexit has already done substantial damage to the UK’s political system as far as devolution is concerned. While the UK government continues to prioritise keeping its cabinet of rebels united and its majority in parliament via the support of the DUP, the democratic and policy concerns of the majority view in both Scotland and NI has been largely ignored. In Northern Ireland, some of these concerns have been brought to the fore via Irish and EU diplomacy. Nonetheless, this does little to counterbalance the marginalisation of Northern Ireland, along with the other devolved nations, in the unfurling of Brexit within the UK.

Unexpectedly, the fact that Northern Ireland may end up closely aligned to the EU whilst Scotland is wholly integrated into the UK as a non-member state further illustrates how Brexit is changing the devolved settlement across the UK.

How such a differentiated Brexit may impact on future political dynamics, including on Irish unification/Scottish independence debates is an open question. Another pertinent question is how the UK government can effectively negotiate its future relationship with the EU whilst neglecting relationships with its constituent parts.

Whatever its impact on the UK’s external relationships, Brexit is already changing the nature, politics, and status of devolution within the United Kingdom.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.

Katy HaywardKaty Hayward | Twitter

Queen’s University Belfast

Dr Katy Hayward is Reader in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research interests include political sociology, European integration, cross-border conflict and cooperation, peace and conflict processes, and Brexit and Ireland.