SNP majority reduced to one as two MSPs resign over pro-Nato stance

Blow for Alex Salmond as John Finnie and Jean Urquhart leave in protest at change of defence policy.

After the SNP voted narrowly in favour of abandoning its 30-year-old policy of opposition to Nato membership at its conference last weekend (see James Maxwell's recent piece for more on the background to the dispute), two of the party's MSPs, John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, have just resigned in protest. In their resignation statements, both argue that the party cannot support membership of a nuclear-armed military alliance whilst simultaneously demanding the removal of Trident from Scottish waters.

John Finnie said:

I cannot belong to a party that quite rightly does not wish to hold nuclear weapons on its soil, but wants to join a first-strike nuclear alliance.

Although I envisage that I will continue to share common ground with the SNP on many issues, I cannot in good conscience continue to take the party whip.

Whilst Jean Urquhart said:

The issue of nuclear disarmament and removing Trident from Scotland's waters is a red line issue for me, and I could not remain committed to a party that has committed itself to retaining membership of Nato.

We are both steadfast in our belief that Scotland should be an independent country, and will actively and positively campaign for a yes vote in 2014. We believe in an independent Scotland, not a Nato-dependent Scotland.

Significantly, their resignations mean that the SNP now has a majority of just one in the Scottish Parliament. The party won 69 seats in the 2011 election (giving it a majority of four) but lost one backbencher when Tricia Marwick became Presiding Officer and lost another when Bill Walker was suspended from the party over allegations of domestic abuse. The departure of Finnie and Urquhart leaves it with 65 out of 129 seats, a majority of one. However, Alex Salmond, who has suffered the first major revolt against his leadership since the party's remarkable victory in 2011, will hope that he can continue to count on their support in most votes as independents.

In response to their resignations, the SNP leader said:

I'm saddened that Jean and John have decided to resign from the party. They have been excellent servants to the SNP, and I'm grateful to them for their tireless efforts.

We had an excellent and democratic debate at party conference last Friday, and agreed a policy of reaffirming our opposition to nuclear weapons as a non-nuclear member of the Nato alliance - a position that will be accepted by the party as a whole.

Jean and John have indicated to me that they will continue to support the Government from the back benches, and I welcome that. I also look forward to working with them both in the campaign to achieve a Yes vote in Scotland's referendum in 2014.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond speaks at the SNP Annual Conference last weekend. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.