It will be recorded in the annals for different reasons, but In October the Taoiseach, Michael Martin, launched his Shared Island Unit, with the declared aim of building harmonious relations on the island of Ireland. In November Boris Johnson launched his Union Unit which is tasked with building harmonious relations within the UK. The reasons behind these two initiatives are distinct, but related. In Dublin there is increasing apprehension about the call for a referendum on the border; in London there is increasing apprehension about the call for a referendum on Scottish independence.
Given that they are running on parallel tracks it is curious how one initiative fails to acknowledge the other. For instance, the Shared Island document has a section which lists the challenges to good relations in Ireland and while no-one would deny that Brexit and climate change deserve their places on any list of challenges, the fact remains that there is nothing as likely to disrupt relations in these islands as Scotland voting for independence, a consideration which doesn’t merit mention in the document. But if that domino falls, we can expect its nearest neighbour to feel the impact.
How likely is that to happen? We will know very soon. The May 2021 election will be taken as a proxy for a vote on independence, a ‘referendum on whether there will be a referendum’. The latest Ipos Mori poll, conducted on 20–26 November predicts that the SNP will take 55% of the seats, consolidating its dominance of Scotttish politics. Once it gets its parliamentary mandate it will throw down a challenge to the Johnson government by calling for the second independence referendum. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The 2014 referendum, in which the union side defeated the independence side by 55% to 45% was supposed to settle the issue ‘for a generation’. Clearly something has changed. The last 14 major polls have shown a majority of Scots support breaking the link with England, with a settled percentage of around 55% – thereby reversing the referendum result almost exactly. The word ‘inevitable’ is now cropping up with increasing frequency in articles about Scottish independence. It would be wise to heed the warning by AJP Taylor that, ‘Nothing is inevitable until it happens’ but, that said, the general expectation is that within the next year the Scottish parliament will precipitate a constitutional crisis by demanding a referendum. Boris Johnson has made it clear he will deny the request, but when he does he will be pouring petrol on the flames his Union Unit was supposed to douse.
Those promoting a border poll in Ireland should pay heed, because the dynamic behind developments in Scotland is also taking shape in Ireland. The increase in support for Scottish independence is sometimes wrongly characterised as an increase in Scottish nationalism, but that is to misunderstand what is influencing those now prepared to break up the UK. Professor John Curtice, the doyen of pollsters, ascribes the change to three things: Brexit, Covid and Johnson. This is not a rebellion by haggis eaters. The crucial constituency, the one that is tilting the balance, is made up of people who voted to retain the link in the last referendum but who now, with varying degrees of reluctance, are coming to see independence as the lesser of two evils. Writing in the New Statesman, Colin Kydd described them as ‘double unionists’. These are people who didn’t want to be trapped within a narrow Scottish nationalism, so they voted to remain in the UK. Equally, they didn’t want to be trapped in a narrow British nationalism and so they voted to remain in the EU.
When that option was crushed by the Brexit vote a slow re-orientation began, one that sees the hope of living in a modern social democratic state having more chance of being realised in an independent Scotland than in a UK structure dominated by a surging English nationalism. At the start of 2020 the two sides in the independence debate were equally balanced in the polls. The ascent of the independents began before Covid, but during the pandemic it was the competence of Nichola Sturgeon, paired with the incompetence of the Johnson administration, that has served to convince the ‘double unionists’ that they should break the link. The personality of Johnson is not irrelevant to this development. It is hard to overstate how much he is disliked, indeed loathed, in Scotland. A poll in October by JL Partners, the firm led by Theresa May’s former pollster James Johnson, found antipathy towards the Prime Minister to be the most important factor in swaying swing voters. The seal was then set on this relationship with the leaking of comments made by Johnson on a Zoom call, that Scottish devolution was ‘Tony Blair’s biggest mistake’. The spin doctors couldn’t spin him out of that one.
But how might John Curtice’s three factors – Brexit, Covid and Boris Johnson – play out in Northern Ireland? The shape of the Brexit arrangement has left Northern Ireland on the window ledge of the union, partly in the UK but also partly in the customs union of the EU ( future historians of unionism will scratch their heads trying to understand the thinking of the DUP in ushering in Brexit). The NI Assembly, despite a good start, has not managed Brexit particularly well. Disastrous quarrels over lockdown have raised fundamental questions about whether power-sharing can ever be workable. More importantly, the assured confidence of the Irish government in handling the pandemic has led many non-nationalists to see logic in treating the island of Ireland, already a single epidemiological unit, as a single jurisdiction for other purposes. As for Boris Johnson, the man who was cheered to the rafters at a DUP conference in 2019 when he promised there would never be a border in the Irish sea, is now as much persona non grata in unionist as in nationalist circles.
The crucial constituency here will be the ‘others’, the 20 % who do not identify with either nationalism or unionism. A border poll won’t allow for equivalence. In a binary choice it will either be the modern Irish state or a link with Boris Johnson’s England. And, if Scotland does push for independence, the option of creating a new constitutional formation with England and Wales does not appear feasible.
Finally, there is one other new unit that has not yet been mentioned. Peter Robinson is calling for a special Northern Ireland think tank to help ensure the link with the union is maintained. If he manages to get it off the ground it will have its work cut out for it.