The coming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union will have greater implications for Northern Ireland than the Scottish independence referendum in September, an academic has said.
Edinburgh academic Professor James Mitchell, an expert in the Scottish vote, said that even if Scotland votes to leave the UK, that would have less profound implications for the Province than a UK exit from the EU.
Professor Mitchell, who is the author of ‘The Scottish Question’, was in Belfast yesterday to speak at a Queen’s University conference examining the economic questions surrounding the Scottish vote.
Professor Mitchell said there was an expectation that Scotland, if it voted for independence, would be accepted into the EU, allowing for free movement of goods and people.
He told the News Letter: “I think the bigger question is what would happen with regard to the EU if Scotland was in the EU and the UK was to vote to leave the EU.
“I think that would be hugely significant for Northern Ireland, given that not only would it find that it was outside the EU, but Scotland and the south were in.
“So you’ve got that curiously difficult position; perhaps more difficult for Northern Ireland than for any other part of the UK.
“My own view is that the EU referendum is likely to be far more significant for Northern Ireland than the Scottish referendum.”
He said that for many Scots the impact of either independence or continued Britishness would be the same: reduced public spending as vast national debts are cut.
He said that his sense was that the UK was “becoming an ever looser Union”.
Professor Mitchell said there was a challenge for Welsh, Northern Irish and regional English politicians to say to London ‘we’re important too’, as over the next nine months attention increasingly focuses on Scotland.
But the academic warned that unionist politicians intervening in the Scottish campaign could actually boost the numbers voting ‘Yes’.
“I think the interest in Northern Ireland, in Scotland, is marginal. A generation or so ago an element in the Scottish community was very interested but that has changed; I have noticed it myself in teaching.”
He said that a small section of Scottish society including members of the Orange Order “will be voting ‘No’ anyway and an intervention from a unionist politician in Northern Ireland would make little difference”.
“What it would likely do, I guess, is that there will be an element in the Catholic community that might react to that and it might help the ‘Yes’ side so there is that danger, from a unionist point of view, that an intervention backfires.”
Foreign Secretary William Hague has said the United Kingdom is “stronger and safer together” as he outlined the case for Scotland to reject voting for independence.
Mr Hague spoke of shared values between Britain and Scotland and said that remaining united would give the UK greater international “clout” and allow it to be “better able to make a difference in the world”.
He also emphasised the business and trade benefits of remaining united, the reassurance provided to Scottish people overseas by the Foreign Office’s consular services, the UK’s level of aid donation and the benefits of having a greater voice on the world stage.
Mr Hague will be in Glasgow today with Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander to publicise the latest of the UK Government’s “Scotland analysis” papers.