Analysis: Constitutional implications of Scots’ vote for NI will last for years

A lone figure waves her flag over the skyline of Glasgow as the city wakes up to the result of Scotland's historic referendum.
A lone figure waves her flag over the skyline of Glasgow as the city wakes up to the result of Scotland's historic referendum.
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Although Scotland has rejected independence, there will be three major constitutional impacts on Northern Ireland.

The most immediate will be the further powers given to Stormont, which, given the incompetent nature of our Executive, could be disastrous.

If the current Stormont gets considerable new powers over areas such as taxation and handles that responsibility as ineptly as is the case with responsibilities such as welfare reform, it is likely to hasten public fury at Northern Ireland’s Executive and ultimately destabilise it to the point of implosion.

The second major constitutional change which has been long on the horizon but now is looming nearer than ever before is a limit on the voting powers of MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

David Cameron is under increasing pressure to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ – what to do about Celtic MPs voting for laws which only affect English voters.

A combination of English anger at such an anomaly – which would become more stark as devolved assemblies are given more powers for non-English regions of the UK – and Ukip opportunism means that Mr Cameron has to find a convincing answer.

A solution to that problem may not only be crucial to the political future of the Prime Minister, who yesterday publicly accepted the need for change, but may also be crucial if the Union is to be made more sustainable by defusing English nationalism.

Thirdly, there is potential for a jolt to the delicate constitutional equilibrium in Northern Ireland.

After years of deeply depressing news for Irish republicans, in which poll after poll has shown shrinking Catholic support for a united Ireland with virtually no change in Protestant views, suddenly there is an element of hope for Irish nationalists.

A cause in Scotland which a generation ago was not seen as remotely threatening to the Union has energised Scots to the point where 45 per cent voted to end the Union. As well as demonstrating that the Union is not as indissoluble as thought until just months ago, there was evidence that the emotion of the nationalist message was crucial in persuading people to vote Yes.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP will hope that when it comes to any future border poll it is possible to sway many of those Catholics who have made a pragmatic decision to support the Union but whose ancestors were nationalists. In such a scenario, even an ability to persuade a small percentage of Protestants to support a united Ireland could secure a majority.

While even the holding of a border poll is unlikely for a long time, particularly given how this referendum has led to a near-crisis, the Scottish vote gives hope to a cause which appeared, for the immediate future, fairly hopeless.

But both the SDLP and the UUP yesterday identified a less pleasant lesson for Sinn Fein from the result – Alex Salmond has brought his country within a whisker of independence without so much as a threat of violence, much less a campaign of indiscriminate bombing and murder.

Far from hastening a united Ireland, the IRA’s actions could actually be the Achilles’ heal of that aspiration. That could yet be realised by at least some of the more strategic dissident republicans.