Peter Robinson, the DUPs leader and First Minister in Northern Ireland has declared that in the case of a hung parliament the DUP would demand the creation of a Commission on the Union as a non-negotiable condition of their support. This commission would seek to address the growing interest in separatism and nationalist parties, following the unexpected levels of support in the 2014 campaign for Scottish Independence and the predicted surge in SNP support at the general election.
Robinson argues that it is important not to punish Scotland for voting SNP but to look at why the Scottish people, who have historically voted by and large for Labour, have turned their back on the more traditional pro-union party. Labour have taken polls showing SNP gains at their expense seriously, they are reported to have turned their attention away from the majority of their Scottish seats to focus on and attempt to save their more high profile seats, such as the one being fought by Jim Murphy, the leader of Scottish Labour.
However, following the election it will be interesting and important for any pro-union party, including the two major parties, to analyse why nationalist parties are growing in popularity particularly in relation to Scotland. Robinson’s proposed commission to find out why and address the problem is far more constructive than much of the coverage and reporting from the pro-union side during the referendum which regularly alleged SNP supporters were engaged in dirty tricks and thuggish behaviour.
While, as with any campaign as controversial and passionately fought as the Independence referendum there may be less than salubrious elements involved, this was a referendum that inspired a lot of people who had previously felt disenfranchised. There was particularly strong support from young Scottish voters, a demographic that usually has the lowest level of engagement and voter turnout in elections. The referendum offered 16 and 17 year olds a chance to vote for the first time and many took the opportunity. Turnout was massive, with 84.6% coming out to vote. This was an excellent opportunity to engage them in a constructive debate, rather than the scare mongering that occurred.
Robinson’s speech also referenced the other nationalist parties in Westminster, the SDLP and Plaid Cymru. However, neither of these parties have made significant gains to the point of effectively eliminating the majority of pro-union seats in their jurisdiction. Furthermore, the SDLP are on the decline, so hardly a concern, they have lost many of their seats to Sinn Féin who, as an abstentionist party, have little effect on Westminster politics.
A commission on the union could be productive if it works towards equality and strengthening the bonds of the union for all four areas of the United Kingdom. However, it is important that the commission works towards a harmonious union and is not a political tool to fight against nationalist parties. That is hardly the place of a national government. This would mean that it should be open to representatives from all Westminster parties, not just the pro-union ones as suggested. Plaid Cymru, for example, may have the ultimate goal of an independent Wales, however this is unrealistic in the short term. Therefore, it is advantageous for them to be involved in the commission if it is to the benefit of Wales. The SDLP similarly are aware that Irish re-unification is unlikely in the short term and as such work towards a better Northern Ireland in accordance with their ideological beliefs.
The only potentially problematic party would be the SNP, who managed to garner a larger than expected amount of support during the campaign for Scottish independence and have shown signs of being interested in another independence referendum in the near future. However, while it is not in the SNPs interest to strengthen the union, it is in their interest to gain the best deal possible for Scotland. To exclude them on the other hand, is likely to increase feelings of disassociation from Westminster and encourage those who think Scotland will get a fairer deal in an independent Scotland. While nationalist parties have no reason to wish to strengthen the union, they do have reason to want to be involved in getting a fairer deal for their region. Any commission should focus on a fair union and addressing citizens’ concerns about the union rather than party politics.
It is also paramount that any commission is inclusive and progressive. Robinson’s speech argued that the SNP and the ‘nationalist bloc’ would act much like the Irish nationalists fighting for independence, however this comparison is inaccurate. The history of Ireland’s inclusion in the UK is different to Scotland, its nationalists also fought for independence using both the ballot and the bullet. Finally, Irish nationalists had mass support by the time they achieved independence and independence was put to a vote in the Dáil. If another referendum is agreed and the SNP have popular support behind them, then the Scottish people have expressed their desire for independence democratically and should not be denied. The DUP cannot bring the problems of the past to a commission that should be designed to create a more harmonious union, with the input of all regions and democratically elected representatives.
A commission to seek to strengthen the Union through consensus by investigating and addressing the causes of increasing discontent and separatist feeling should be an important part of the next government’s plans. However what the DUP proposes is exclusionary and is open to being abused for the purpose of party politics rather than good governance of the United Kingdom. The best way to deal with the separatist threat is not to exclude them, the DUP should be familiar with the absolute failure of Thatcher’s policy of excluding Sinn Féin from any peace talks in Northern Ireland, banning their voices from broadcasts and many other incidents. Any party who chooses to negotiate with the DUP should look at this proposal carefully and ensure that any commission deal will be progressive rather divisive. Organising the commission, as suggested by Robinson, with only pro-union parties involved will only lead to increasing discontent, particularly if as polls suggest the majority of Scottish MPs are SNP MPs and are therefore excluded. Strengthening the United Kingdom must involve all of the United Kingdom, not a select few.