What does union mean? The House of Commons yesterday voted to guarantee that equal marriage and abortion rights would be extended to the final part of the Union that is without them. The notion that the unions of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland are not equal to others inside the Union of the United Kingdom has become increasingly corrosive. Inequality inside conservative Northern Ireland is one thing, but the idea that Northern Ireland’s same-sex couples, and indeed its women, are less deserving of basic rights than all other British and Irish citizens had become untenable.
But yesterday’s vote also raised new questions about relationships between people in different parts of these islands — and the obligations we owe to one another. The campaign to change the law on equal marriage was driven by Labour MP Conor McGinn, who sits for St Helens North but is originally from South Armagh, probably the most strongly nationalist part of Northern Ireland. The amendment on abortion rights was laid by Stella Creasey, a north London MP who has a strong record on women’s rights but until now little direct engagement with Northern Irish policy.
In the end, both amendments passed comfortably on a free vote, but the moment when campaigners seemed to realise something dramatic was happening was when SNP MPs extended their support. Previously, Scottish nationalists had planned to abstain on what technically remains a matter for Northern Ireland’s frozen institutions — keen to uphold the principle that Westminster should not intervene in devolved matters.
What swayed them? Nicola Sturgeon cited the non-functioning assembly’s inability to act on a human rights issue for people in Northern Ireland. This is important: a party whose overriding ambition is Scottish independence was moved to compromise on the basis of a sense of moral obligation to people who do not live in Scotland. The SNP are clearly not Unionists, nor in all probability is Unionism core to the beliefs of McGinn or Creasy. But the rights of UK citizens in Northern Ireland do matter to them, and they certainly matter to the campaigners who exerted pressure on the issue.
The same is true of campaigners and politicians in the Republic of Ireland — where successive referenda on equal marriage and abortion have thrown the lack of the same rights for Irish citizens in the North into stark relief. Or never mind Irish and UK citizenship — perhaps just people will do.
All of this suggests that even those who think the UK as currently constituted is untenable — and that it will be even more so if it departs the EU without a deal — also accept that the people who live on these islands are connected by a web of obligations that go beyond political institutions. The SNP’s membership, let alone its voters, will include countless numbers either born on the island of Ireland, or descended from people that were. Alex Salmond himself acknowledged this in a speech in Derry in 2016, telling his audience they were “bone of our bone, blood of our blood”.
Salmond himself made much of “the social union between the people of these isles” during the 2014 independence referendum, an elegant phrase that was deployed with little specific remedy for how social union across separate sovereign states should be preserved. The contention of many who advocate Scottish independence, and to some extent Irish unity, is that top-down political union, with power vested in Westminster, is at odds with how people wish to be governed. Westminster’s inability to adopt a Brexit policy which commands consent across the UK is making that argument for them.
Added to this is the irony that the most vocal supporters of political union — the Democratic Unionist Party — have been opponents of the extension of fundamental rights based on common UK citizenship. Meanwhile, the party argues that divergence in how goods are regulated and checked is a profound infringement on their Britishness.
Those arguing for constitutional change inside the UK view the upheaval of Brexit as a moment of opportunity. Which of course it is. But if they are to take advantage of that opportunity, they will have to think about the kinds of connections that will replace political union.
People of all sexualities in Dublin, Edinburgh and London will last night have felt a particular happiness for same-sex couples in Belfast who will soon, hopefully, be able to enter into their own unions. There is strong evidence that the current political structures in these islands are struggling to accommodate the differences among the people who live here. But if those structures are to be replaced, we will have to find new ways to accommodate the obligations and connections we will surely still feel towards one another.