Will Brexit lead to the break up of the UK?

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The differing referendum results in the UK’s component parts have led to immediate speculation about a second independence referendum in Scotland and a border poll in Northern Ireland. Robert Hazell assesses the situation.

Scotland (by 62–38) and Northern Ireland (by 56–44) voted to remain in the EU, but were outvoted by England and Wales. This has led to immediate speculation that there might be a second independence referendum in Scotland, and a border poll in Northern Ireland to seek re-unification with the south. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that a second independence referendum is ‘highly likely’, and Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has (not for the first time) called for a border poll. How likely is it that a referendum to leave the UK might be held in Scotland, or Northern Ireland; and how likely is it that such a referendum would be carried?

In both countries the two questions are closely connected. Having lost the 2014 independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon is not going to call for another one unless she is confident that next time it can be won. She is likely to wait until the polls consistently show support of 60 per cent or more for several months. Since September 2014 the polls have suggested that Scotland is divided more or less 50–50, when Scots are asked if they would support independence now. It might be expected that Brexit would give a boost to support for independence, but our Brexit devolution seminar on 19 May suggested several reasons why that might not be the case.

First, forecasts of the financial viability of an independent Scotland depend heavily on the oil price; but the price of oil was a lot higher in September 2014, at almost $100 a barrel, compared with less than $50 now. Second, if an independent Scotland joined (or remained in) the EU, while England and Wales headed for Brexit, that might require for the first time the creation of a hard land border between England and Scotland. Third, if Scotland has to re-apply to join the EU, it may be required to join the Euro, which is a requirement for all new member states. This last factor might be a reason for Scotland seeking to hold an independence referendum soon, before the UK leaves the EU, so that Scotland does not have to re-apply from outside. The Scottish Parliament does not have a clear power to hold an independence referendum, because under the Scotland Act 1998 the constitution is a reserved matter; so to be sure, as in 2014 the Scottish government would need authorisation from Westminster, which might give the UK government some control over the timing.

In Northern Ireland the power to hold a border poll rests in the hands of the Secretary of State, currently Theresa Villiers. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 she is under a duty to hold a poll ‘if at any time it appears likely … that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.’

No such evidence presently exists. Indeed last month’s dip in support for nationalist parties in the Assembly elections produced a rethink about the inevitability of a united Ireland. Sinn Féin’s sudden call for a border poll after the Brexit vote therefore suggests they were improvising a response to match Nicola Sturgeon’s in Scotland. Their DUP coalition partners and the Irish government (who would be required to hold a referendum in parallel), were quick to join Villiers in turning it down. But Sinn Fein may wish to leave the idea of a border poll on the table to test support for pressing the issue harder at the next available election. As a border poll may only be held every seven years, they may wish to embark on a long term build-up of momentum to the point when a Catholic voting majority is reached, probably in a generation’s time. In the meantime Sinn Féin may also wish to develop more robust criteria for holding a referendum than the judgment of a British minister.

About the author

Robert Hazell is Professor of Government and the Constitution at the Constitution Unit

2 thoughts on “Will Brexit lead to the break up of the UK?

  1. Pingback: Brexit basics | Law & Religion UK

  2. Wolfgang Schäuble is hardly going to be gentler on Scottish debt than George Osborne, a further factor complicating Scottish desires for independence.

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