Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Scottish independence: Why Northern Ireland should be fearful if the proposal to fly solo succeeds

What does the White Paper on Scottish independence mean for Northern Ireland, asks Hamish Macdonnell

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond

Alex Salmond did not mention Northern Ireland once during his hour-long Press conference in Glasgow yesterday as he launched his long-awaited blueprint for Scottish independence.

Indeed, it is hard to find a single mention of Northern Ireland in the weighty, 670-page tome, which was published by the Scottish government.

But that does not mean that the White Paper will not affect the province. On the contrary, the effects of this one, bulky document from the devolved administration in Edinburgh could be more profound for Northern Ireland than anything that has come out of Westminster in recent years.

At its broadest level, the White Paper envisages a United Kingdom which has a massive hole in it. It would still be a United Kingdom, but Northern Ireland would have a foreign country on its east coast, just as it already has one to the south.

The psychological and symbolic effects of this would be profound, but what is perhaps less well-known is effect that Scottish independence would have, on a day-to-day basis, on those who continue to live in what would then be known as rUk – or the remainder of the United Kingdom.

For instance, although the document, Scotland's Future, insisted that the Queen would remain head of state of an independent Scotland, it raised a question about the continuation of the Union flag.

Mr Salmond's White Paper said that the rest of the UK would still be entitled to use the Union Flag – even though the blue bits in it would be, officially, redundant.

But it did seem implicit in the paper that the UK might like to choose something else, something just red and white, perhaps, after Scotland's departure.

It would be interesting to see how that would go down among some of the more passionate unionists in Northern Ireland.

Then there is the issue of border controls. The White Paper sets out a plan for a common travel area, which would cover Scotland and the remaining parts of the UK, arguing that there would only be a need for border controls on the edges of the area, not within it.

However, the White Paper went on to explain that an independent Scotland would have a Scottish Borders and Migration Service, which would be responsible for ensuring that no one without the correct visa would get into Scotland.

The Scottish First Minister also made it clear that he expected an independent Scotland to have a more liberal immigration policy than the rest of the UK.

And although he argued that this would not be a problem, it does raise the prospect that the rest of the UK – including Northern Ireland – might be forced to erect border posts after Scottish independence, just to ensure that migrants do not use Scotland as an entry point for the UK itself.

Scotland's Future was definitive that Scotland would continue to use the pound in a sterling zone, but the likelihood of this is far from clear, however insistent Mr Salmond may have been on the issue yesterday.

So although the White Paper never mentioned the euro, it remains in the background as the only logical fall-back position if Scotland is barred from using the pound after independence. That would leave Northern Ireland with a eurozone country to the south and another to the east. If that happens, we had all better get used to changing our money on the ferry between Stranraer and Belfast.

However, the biggest change for Northern Ireland if Scotland did become independent – whatever form that takes – would be economic.

The White Paper confirmed the SNP's intention to cut corporation tax after independence in an attempt to woo business to Scotland and away from other parts of the UK.

As Northern Ireland's corporation tax rate still has not been lowered, as many campaigners, including the First Minister, Peter Robinson, want, it is distinctly possible that Scotland could get there first.

That would leave Northern Ireland surrounded by countries with lower corporation tax rates than it, which could cause potentially substantial damage to business in the province.

Those working in businesses with cross-border interests would also find themselves dealing with two separate regulatory regimes, two different tax systems and possibly even an exchange rate – none of which would make business any easier.

Those who work in other sections of public life might find problems in their own areas. The police would find it harder to nip across the sea chasing suspected criminals after Scottish independence.

There are some potential advantages, though. According to the White Paper, all those living in the other parts of the UK who were born in Scotland would be entitled to become Scottish citizens with a Scottish passport. Also, those who have Scottish-born parents and grandparents could also apply for Scottish citizenship.

So, if Scottish independence did prove to be as damaging to Northern Ireland and its future economic prospects as some fear, there is a potential solution – for some in Northern Ireland, anyway.

All those with even the tiniest hint of Scottish antecedents could jump ship, come and live over here and become citizens of the new Scotland.

They would all be more than welcome and there is no doubt they would all fit in very well – after all, they would already be well-used to the wind, rain and cold: aspects of Scottish life which not even Mr Salmond has been able to promise will be better after independence.