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4 December 2017

If Northern Ireland gets a soft Brexit, what happens to Scotland?

One Labour activist warned: “There will be hell to pay.”

By Julia Rampen

Forget “Freeeeeedom” – the true cross-party rallying cry of those who live north of Berwick-upon-Tweed is “But what about Scotland?” So far, Holyrood has managed to keep fairly quiet while the debate about the Irish border has, appropriately enough, focused on the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. But if the reports from RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, are correct, Ireland (and its big daddy, the EU27) just won the fight. According to the report, the draft negotiating text promises no divergence of the rules covering the EU single market and customs union on the island of Ireland post-Brexit. In other words, it’s a soft Brexit for Belfast.  

If this is true, as Stephen Bush has catalogued, there are huge implications for the UK government and its relationship with the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party as well. But on the Atlantic winds comes another demand: “But what about Scotland?”

While the Scottish independence referendum famously didn’t end in campfire renditions of Auld Lang Syne, there is one thing that unites a majority of Scots – opposition to Brexit. The reaction to a deal for the island of Ireland is likley to fall into two categories. 

The first is green envy. Scotland’s pro-independence First Minister Nicola Sturgeon greeted the news by tweeting: “Right now, Ireland is powerfully demonstrating the importance of being independent when it comes to defending your vital national interests.” Yet even those who don’t see Ireland as a pin-up for an independent Scotland’s future noted the difference when it came to Brexit. Jamie Glackin, a prominent Labour activist, tweeted: “If Northern Ireland gets to remain in the single market but Scotland doesn’t then there will be hell to pay.”

The second is, depending on the details of the concession, attention may shift to the border between Scotland and the island of Ireland, particularly the ferry port north of Stranraer (best avoided on the day I last crossed, 12 July, unless you really enjoy the sound of flute music and anti-Catholic songs). Any proposition that involves border checks at Stranraer is ammunition for the Scottish National Party, which has constantly attacked Westminster for imposing an immigration policy on Scotland that does not suit the needs of its rapidly ageing population. 

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Neither of these reactions is likely to be healthy for pro-union parties that have been trying to make the case for some years now that Scotland needs to get over its victim complex and focus on getting things moving at home. 

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Indeed, the new question which is likely to do the rounds in Holyrood will not be “what about Scotland?” but “what about Northern Ireland?”