Liberals abetting nationalists’ schemes to break up the Union

In Scotland and Ireland, Brexit has become the excuse for fresh assaults on the existence of the United Kingdom. The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, recently demanded a second independence referendum, while southern Irish politicians have encouraged northern nationalists’ calls for a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland within the EU, or even a ‘border poll’ on a united Ireland.

There is an idea that Brexit ‘changed’ everything in the UK, yet, if you examine them closely, the separatists’ tactics are nothing new. Old-fashioned nationalist resentments are being dressed up as Europhile liberalism, and these ugly sentiments are receiving encouragement from so-called constitutional agnostics, like the Alliance Party, and even some liberal unionists, who were deeply hurt by last year’s EU referendum result.

The SNP in Scotland has turned fostering grievances against the parliament at Westminster, and the Conservative Party in particular, into something of an art form. When she announced plans for a new independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon accused the government of centralising power, despite an incessant stream of new competencies, many of which remain unused, that were passed to the Scottish Parliament from London.

Sturgeon implies that her administration was forced into a referendum, because Scots have been ignored during the process of planning for Brexit, but her claims are not credible. The Scottish government made undeliverable demands, asking that Scotland remain part of the single market, while the rest of the UK leaves. Polls show that Scots don’t even want another referendum, much less to break up Britain.

The SNP’s entire existence is devoted to destroying the Union. Its followers are fanatical about the project, and the idea that it is now only reluctantly pursuing independence is laughable. The party has seized cynically upon an opportunity to create upheaval while the UK’s links with the EU are up for negotiation, in the hope that it can successfully inflame emotions across Scotland and England, and secure a bad-tempered ‘yes’ vote.

If the separatists prevail, the Scottish electorate will get to regret the result at its leisure. Scotland will find itself outside the EU, irrespective of the referendum outcome, and substantially poorer, as its high quality of life is actually sustained by the UK parliament’s ‘oppressions’.

The same is true for Northern Ireland, but much more so. The consequences of stoking separatist resentment and constitutional instability are potentially graver, given that we are still recovering from a brutal terrorist campaign designed to bring about Irish unity.

The Republic of Ireland government eventually made a constructive contribution toward building peace, so it’s particularly regrettable that southern politicians are now using Brexit to rekindle the ‘national question’.

Possibly, their motivation is to quell political support for Sinn Fein in the Republic, by playing to nationalist sentiment. Equally, focussing on Northern Ireland is a useful distraction from the serious economic challenges that Brexit presents in the south. The Republic sells far more to Britain and the US than to the remaining 26 EU nation states, while it will also bear most of the responsibility for any customs arrangements at the border.

Rather than allow the Irish public to fret on the potential costs and practicalities, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, convened a ‘national conversation’, comprising nationalists and wounded ‘remainers’, that promoted the idea of a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland. This arrangement, which is unacceptable to the British government and unionists, as well as possibly unachievable legally, would see the north remain in the single market with the Republic, while the rest of the UK left.

For northern nationalists, it’s a beguiling notion, which looks like an important step toward unity. For politicians from the Republic, it’s a way to direct their fury at the old ‘oppressor’, on whom they are still frustratingly dependent, for its decision to leave the EU and put Ireland in a tricky predicament.

Either way, even though it will never happen, the idea that it might is unlikely to bring stability to Northern Ireland, at a time when politicians are vainly trying to patch up power-sharing institutions.

Yet the prospect of a ‘special status’ is supported by the Alliance Party, which is supposedly neutral on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, but formerly argued that our place in the UK was not a live issue. Its previous leader, David Ford, actually went to court in order to challenge the government’s authority to implement Brexit in Northern Ireland, a power clearly reserved to the Westminster parliament.

The party, with its yellow tinged, cross-community ethos, is so steaming mad at Brexit that it is prepared to destabilise the constitutional status-quo and flirt with separatism to resist the inevitable.

Even some liberal unionists are taking a similar approach. The UUP’s former deputy leader, John McCallister, explained that he’d supported Alliance in the recent Assembly election, confirming on Twitter that he is open to a ‘special status’ if it guarantees a ‘frictionless border’ with the Republic.

It might make moderates feel better to air their frustrations at Brexit and align themselves with separatists, but it is irresponsible. In Northern Ireland, and in Scotland, you don’t have to dig deeply into the nationalists’ rhetoric to find old-fashioned anti-English prejudices dressed in the garb of political liberalism. The English, they say, have no right to force other parts of the UK into Brexit.

That argument disintegrates unless you insist that the UK electorate can never form a single demos, or exercise a unitary mandate. That’s a separatist assumption, and it’s nearly always grounded in ugly grievances against the English, or expressed in vocabulary that portrays the smaller nations of the United Kingdom as English colonies.

Devolution may have encouraged the notion that a national mandate is illegitimate, but it’s not an argument that constitutional agnostics, much less self-described unionists, could normally accept. Nationalists, in Ireland and in Scotland, will always use any excuse to try to break up the UK. Only some type of collective hysteria over Brexit has allowed liberal Europhiles to abet the separatists in their transparent schemes to break up the Union.