Comment: What if Scots quit a UK that quits EU?

Ben Lowry, deputy editor News Letter
Ben Lowry, deputy editor News Letter

There is a plausible political scenario facing Northern Ireland that is little-discussed but which would rock the Province to its core.

Within three years or so it is possible both that Scotland will have left the UK, and that what is left of the UK will have quit the EU.

The likelihood of both outcomes is small. If the chance of Scotland deciding to exit the UK in September is — say — 20 per cent, and the chance of the UK leaving the EU in 2017 is — at a guess — 40 per cent, then the two statistics combined have an eight per cent liklihood — a less than one in ten chance.

Some observers would say that a sequential double exit, in 2014 and 2017, is even more improbable than that. But it is not inconceivable.

The opinion polls in Scotland were pro Union for more than a year after Alex Salmond announced in 2012 that he would hold the referendum this autumn. This year the polls tightened, but the No (to independence) camp seems again to be pulling well ahead.

The big hope for the Yes campaign is that undecideds break two-to-one for independence, which is possible.

It is much more likely that the UK will vote to exit Europe. If a snap In-Out referendum was held tomorrow, there is a strong chance that the sceptical English would decide to leave (I write the ‘English’ because they make up 84 per cent of the UK electorate and will have most influence in a vote — more so if Scotland goes, in which case they will make up 92 per cent of the remaining UK).

The main barrier to a UK exit is the fact that a 2017 referendum depends on the Conservatives being at least the largest party after 2015. There is irony in the fact that the surge in support for Ukip could wreak havoc in the marginal constituencies that the Tories need to win.

But the choice of the federalist Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president, in apparent disregard for British concerns, boosts the prospect of a referendum (emerging out of a situation in which the Tories and other main parties are no longer able to control the agenda) and so of an Out vote.

During the two referendums, potential consequences for Northern Ireland of exit will be of little concern to voters in either plebiscite.

Even the Scots, who have a closer historical link to our divide, are not focusing on the fact that an exit will embolden Irish nationalists.

A Yes vote would mean that the demand for an Irish border poll, which only Sinn Fein are pushing, would be overwhelming. My own view, argued on this page last year, was that unionists should have gone for an early border poll, which might well have produced such a decisive pro Union vote as to settle the matter for a generation.

But that was then. Sentiment among people who are vaguely nationalist could change utterly in the wake of a Scottish vote to go it alone. Independence would have a new glamour.

The English will certainly not spend an EU referendum campaign worrying about whether a UK exit will enrage Irish republicans.

Attitudes in Ulster will barely be on the radar. Indeed, if English voters think that the Province is likely to be a problem, it could turn the current indifference of Middle England towards Northern Ireland into impatience and frustration.

Imagine the cry from the SDLP, Sinn Fein, and Dublin parties, if Northern Ireland was suddenly outside the EU, minus MEPs. They would say that nationalists in the Province had been turfed out of an alliance of progressive European states by insular little England bigots.

At the extremes, the anger could be destabilising. Hardcore republicans know there is no appetite in England for dealing with fresh trouble in the Province.

Meanwhile, a Scottish exit could bolster English nationalism, which has in any event been awakening. It could make them think more closely about the oddness of the remaining UK ­— that they are linked to, and heavily subsidising, a Northern Ireland that is more distant from the UK than it was (we are only 12 miles from Scotland at the closest point, but 75 miles from England).

Then there is the whole question of border controls in a non-EU, diminished UK. In theory we would be entitled to unimpeded travel with England, but it would be easier for England to get tough on movement across the Irish Sea than over the NI-ROI land border.

This all depends on an unlikely scenario, but a serious one. We can do little except watch events unfold.