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If frustrated Scotland goes it alone, it'll be Northern Ireland that pays a hefty price

There is going to be a second Scottish independence referendum, it is going to happen soon and only a fool would bet against the nationalists winning this time around - with seismic implications for here, reports Hamish Macdonell from Edinburgh

Published 28/06/2016

Nicola Sturgeon pointed out Scotland voted to stay in a UK that’s very different from today’s. Photo: BuzzFeed News/Facebook via Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon pointed out Scotland voted to stay in a UK that’s very different from today’s. Photo: BuzzFeed News/Facebook via Getty Images

'The UK that Scotland voted to remain within in 2014 doesn't exist anymore." These were the words of Nicola Sturgeon on Sunday - and she was right. The UK - the whole of the UK - has changed so dramatically as a result of the Brexit vote that everything is different now. But Ms Sturgeon was hinting at a deeper, psychological change in Scotland, too.

She feels - and she may be right - that Scotland is now ready to go its own way, to break clear from the United Kingdom and become an independent country within Europe.

Why does she feel that now, just two years after Scots rejected independence? The reason is because the central claim made by the unionists in 2014 has been fatally undermined by the Brexit vote.

This was the argument that we were all the same, regardless of where in the United Kingdom we lived. Indeed, so central was it to the unionist campaign that it was there, in the name of the official No campaign group: Better Together.

But that just doesn't wash anymore, not after Scotland voted completely and overwhelmingly for Remain and England voted the other way.

Scots are now asking the question: how can we all share the same values and have the same basic view of the world, from Dudley to Dundee, when Dudley voted 68%-32% to Leave, while Dundee voted 60%-40% to Remain?

Even in those areas which lie side-by-side across the border, the difference was marked. The Scottish Borders voted 58%-42% for Remain, yet over the border in Carlisle, the result was 60%-40% for Leave.

This political landscape has shifted, but, crucially, it is unionists who are feeling it most, not nationalists. There are many nationalists who never trusted the English, anyway. The big change is that this sentiment has now spread to unionists, too.

Indeed, there are many unionists in Scotland who now feel betrayed. They are angry that they stood by the Union with England and defended it back in 2014 only to feel they have been stabbed in the back by the English now.

And it is this groundswell of resentment from the unionist side which will propel Ms Sturgeon on towards Scotland's second independence referendum and may well take the nationalists to victory.

However, while there is anger in Scotland, it is mixed with a sense of relief that at least we have the opportunity to reverse the Brexit vote. We have a get-out. If it comes to it, we can just up and leave the UK.

And it is this that makes the relative positions of Scotland and Northern Ireland so different.

Scotland voted to Remain in the EU by 62%-38%, Northern Ireland voted to Remain by 56%-44%. The margin in Scotland was certainly more conclusive, but the results in these two parts of the UK were not wildly different.

In Scotland, though, the Remain vote was uniform; it covered the whole of the country. There wasn't a single local authority area which backed Leave. Even those areas - like the Western Isles - which wanted to leave the EEC back in 1975 backed Remain this time around.

That is what gives Ms Sturgeon so much authority and strength when she talks about Scotland choosing to stay in the EU, not the UK.

So, while there is significant sympathy in Scotland with the majority in Northern Ireland who voted to Remain, we also recognise that our circumstances are markedly different. We have the option of going it alone; you do not. But, as attitudes harden in Scotland, as that resentment against the decision of the English mutates into support for Scottish independence, so it will be combined with a realisation of just how our decision will affect others.

Just as the Brexit vote of middle England has had such a dramatic effect on the rest of the UK, so a Scottish vote to leave the UK will have a significant impact on places like Northern Ireland.

I have friends on the Isle of Islay who sometimes take their boat across the sea to Ballycastle and Portrush, just for the day. If Scotland breaks from the UK, they won't be able to do that anymore.

That short sea crossing between the southern part of Islay and the top of Northern Ireland will become the frontier between the EU and the UK.

It will be a hard border. There will be sea patrols and border guards and no one will be allowed to just turn up in a boat, have a picnic on a beach, visit a distillery and motor back again.

There will be customs posts and border fences at the ferry terminals in Larne and Belfast, checking all the passengers and freight leaving for Stranraer.

Scottish nationalists have long taken inspiration from Scandinavia, and it may well be that, if Scotland votes to leave the UK, Edinburgh's attention may shift to the east as the government tries to forge with other independent countries of a similar size: Denmark, Norway and Sweden. This will put further distance between Edinburgh and Belfast.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have long followed similar paths, their histories linked through shipbuilding, football, religion and sectarianism.

But the Brexit vote has changed the way Scotland sees itself and it now seems to be getting ready to veer away from its neighbour over the water.

Two snap post-Brexit polls over the weekend put support for independence in Scotland at more than 50%, with one suggesting that independence was now the favoured option of almost two-thirds of the population.

This shows that something has already changed in Scotland and I would expect proper, more considered polls over the next few weeks to show that pro-independence support strengthening and deepening.

There really is no doubt about it. We are heading for a second independence referendum, we are going to have it soon and only a fool would bet against the nationalists winning it this time.

  • Hamish Macdonell is a leading Scottish political commentator and former political editor of The Scotsman

Belfast Telegraph

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