In the Face of Brexit, Relations between Ireland and Scotland Are Only Strengthening

Paul Gillespie | 28 June 2018

© 2018 Consulate General of Ireland in Scotland

Ireland and Scotland have been marginalised by the Brexit process in the UK, a force field now made even more pronounced by the Conservative Party’s continuing political turmoil over what Brexit actually means. A growing realisation of common interests makes for much improved relations between the Scottish and Irish governments, business and civil society groups and, though more unevenly, between politicians and people in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Policy coordination to mitigate the impact of Brexit on the Republic, which becomes the bordering state for the whole European Union, and the UK, and on Northern Ireland and Scotland, which voted against leaving the EU, is an increasing feature of these better relations.

Brexit reveals how much EU membership matters in these two political unions. To leave changes the terms, solidarities and dynamics of what is involved, as the British government is discovering in the withdrawal negotiations with Brussels. Assumptions that it will be possible to cherry pick relations even when relinquishing the obligations of being a member are being rudely dashed. Similar assumptions that Ireland would transactionally follow the UK by leaving the EU to protect its interests in Anglo-Irish trade and cultural affinities are likewise upended.

EU solidarity with Ireland

Instead a surprising solidarity between the EU27 and Ireland is manifested in the hard bargaining over keeping the Irish border open by avoiding the controls needed if Northern Ireland leaves the customs union and the single market. It was forcefully articulated in Dublin last week by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, ahead of this week’s European Council meeting in Brussels.

Thus the historical marginalisation to which Ireland was subject as a member of the UK before independence, and which was reproduced in the disregard for its interests by the Leave side during and after the Brexit referendum, is being radically counterbalanced in these negotiations by widespread support from EU governments and institutions. That appears to legitimise Irish nationalism’s longstanding search for continental allies against British rule, a factor which helps explain the huge popular support for the Irish government’s tough negotiating line with London.

Dublin has refused to adopt a bilateral approach, preferring the multilateral position agreed with its EU partners, which it has demonstrably influenced. Risks that this could rebound in last-minute dealing next October when a deal is finalised are acknowledged but played down in the face of such solidarity. As a member state, Ireland is on the stronger side of the table despite its unique exposure to the downside economic, political and constitutional effects of Brexit.

Marginalisation of Scotland and Northern Ireland

Scotland’s marginalisation exposes its relatively weak bargaining position within the UK and with the EU, despite its vote against Brexit. Devolution’s constitutional fragility is revealed in Westminster’s assertion of control over the repatriation of powers from Brussels and the disregard shown for Scotland’s preferences in the negotiations with Brussels. Despite the Scottish government’s refusal to agree in the legal process, SNP protest walkouts from the House of Commons and weak political inputs to government policies, there is little sign of those preferences being given priority.

Scotland nevertheless has a strong and functioning government well able to express its views, unlike Northern Ireland. The collapse of the power-sharing executive between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party in January 2017 and the failure to agree on a successor since then has deprived it of a proper voice in the Brexit negotiations. It is a grave shortcoming, despite the detailed attention of the Irish government and the DUP’s influence on the Conservatives at Westminster, where it gives Theresa May her parliamentary majority. The hugely detailed and complex governance and regulatory issues involved in the customs union and single market regimes, together with any special arrangements made for Northern Ireland, are left without local political input at a crucial time.

That marginalisation is feeding into a wider debate on constitutional futures in Northern Ireland after Brexit. Opinion polling shows more Catholic nationalists supporting Irish unification, along with a significant swing group of those classifying themselves as ‘others’ in the polarisation with Protestant unionists. Economic interests after a potentially hard Brexit, perceived better governance and more tolerant mores in the Republic, as well as the desire to stay in a wider European setting, drive these changing attitudes.

The Border and post-Brexit relations

It is quite premature to predict or demand a border poll, many argue; rather should the longer term deliberative process so apparent in Ireland’s recent referendums in favour of gay rights and abortion be applied to the unity issue in a spirit of reconciliation and dialogue. Just as the SNP leadership argues against directly linking the Brexit and Scottish independence question, so do these voices in Ireland say Brexit and unity should not be tied together. A sequential approach is to be preferred.

That is an understandable and politically mature position, but it may take too little account of the potentially rapid pace of events if a hard Brexit and an economic downturn were to materialise in coming months and years. Since that would affect Ireland and the UK equally and simultaneously, it is essential to try to anticipate what might be involved in the various scenarios and prepare for them, ranging from a gradualist to a radical outcome.

Launching a book, Europe and Northern Ireland’s Future by Mary C. Murphy of University College Cork in Dublin this week, Mark Durkan of the SDLP said much commentary on the Irish border deals only with trucks and trade in goods. This overlooks the wider political bargain built into the 1998 Belfast Agreement by which the land boundary was ‘debordered’ for people and communities North and South. Strands 2 and 3 of the agreement on North-South and East-West relations respectively dealt with these aspects.

As Murphy argues, a radical Brexit outcome could severely undermine the Northern Ireland peace process and threaten its stability. That strengthens the case for a special deal dealing with Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. Durkan says there is scope to review and renew the Belfast Agreement post-Brexit, especially the underdeveloped Strands 2 and 3. A strong argument for doing that would be to draw in the Scottish and Welsh experiences of devolution in an attempt to keep Irish-British relations open.

Enduring Irish-Scottish links

That spirit of greater Irish-Scottish awareness should be enhanced by a romantic landmark opened last weekend on the slopes of Beinn Glas above Loch Etive in Argyll in the west of Scotland to honour the ancient story of Deirdre and Naoise. The tale known as Deirdre of the Sorrows saw the lovers escape there from Ireland to avoid her being captured as his wife by King Conchuber of Ulster. Sam Mcdonald from Taynuilt has created a Sheiling, or mountain shelter, with standing stones, a bell, a statue and explanatory plaques of the story in honour of his Irish wife Evelyn who died last year. She had urged him to do that so the story would become more widely known in Scotland.

Place names around Loch Etive refer directly to their time there, suggesting they were real historical figures. As Irish President Michael D. Higgins said in a message to the event, the tales from this Ulster Cycle form ‘a mythic arc that is the shared inheritance of the peoples of Scotland and Ireland’. He hoped the memorial sheiling ‘will stand as a monument, not only to the common past of the peoples of Scotland and Ireland, but to the shared destiny of our two ancient countries’.

Scottish Brexit minister Michael Russell spoke of a geopoetics linking Scotland and Ireland culturally, recalling James Joyce’s remark when preparing Ulysses that ‘places remember events’. He reminded the gathering that no Taoiseach has missed a meeting of the British-Irish Council created by the Belfast Agreement, which he had just attended, saying these institutions should be strengthened to cope with Brexit. That would help avoid future marginalisation of Scotland and Ireland at the hands of London-based political elites.

Paul GillespiePaul Gillespie

University College Dublin

Dr Paul Gillespie is a writer and commentator on international affairs, including British-Irish relations, European integration and Brexit. He is Deputy Director of the Institute for British Irish Studies at University College Dublin and was previously Foreign Policy editor of The Irish Times.