Analysis | An old question for new leadership: Irish and Scottish nationalism under U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss

Ryan Conner

U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss holds her first cabinet meeting on September 7, 2022. (Image: Number 10 on Flickr/Cropped from original)

On September 5, Britain’s Conservative Party selected Liz Truss, previously U.K. foreign secretary, as the new prime minister. We do not yet know how her domestic and foreign policies will take shape, but we do have a sense of her initial priorities. Domestic policy issues, such as the cost of living, will occupy the top of her agenda. Her main foreign policy priorities will involve Russia’s war in Ukraine, China’s military expansion, U.K. diplomatic and trade relations with the European Union and the United States, climate change, and energy prices. Truss plans to cut taxes and regulations while increasing defense spending. One analyst characterizes her as a “disruptor,” willing to challenge U.K. allies, such as France, for the sake of domestic politics. This tendency constrains her ability to conduct effective foreign policy, especially in relations with Europe.

How well Truss and her ministers carry out this agenda abroad will depend in large part on the unity of the United Kingdom. Brexit strained her government’s relationships with the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as the Irish government. Sinn Féin’s recent electoral success in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish National Party’s plan for a new independence referendum create further uncertainty about the future of the union. Each party will continue to reshape the domestic politics of the United Kingdom, likely posing greater challenges to the Conservatives ahead of the next general election, to be held before 2025. Although Truss’s agenda includes important foreign policy issues, her domestic political moves will bear significantly on her success as prime minister and the future of the union.

The nationalist parties in both Northern Ireland and Scotland are becoming increasingly significant. Sinn Féin became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this year for the first time ever. The Good Friday Agreement (1998) requires the U.K. secretary of state for Northern Ireland to call a border poll if they deem that a majority would vote for unification; a recent opinion poll suggests that a majority of people would vote for a united Ireland within the next twenty years. In June, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon introduced legislation in the Scottish Parliament to hold a second referendum on independence in October 2023. The first vote, held in 2014, returned a majority in favor of “no.” Although Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) does not have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, it forms a coalition with the Scottish Greens that would give the legislation majority support. Even if the SNP proceeds with a referendum, pro-independence advocates might not have enough electoral support. At the moment, a slightly greater percentage of voters would vote “no” on independence than “yes.” However, this vote balance has fluctuated over the past few years, and likely will continue to shift prior to a potential referendum.

These political trends leave 10 Downing Street with the question of whether and how to defend the union. Surely, Truss and her Tory allies will not want to preside over its dissolution. While talking to Conservatives earlier this summer in Scotland, Truss said she would “never ever let our family be split up.” However, trust between the devolved governments and the U.K. government remains very low. The answer will hinge in large part on Truss’s relationships with the political parties in Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as the Irish government.

The ongoing dispute between the United Kingdom and the European Union over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland continues to endanger these relationships. As foreign secretary, Truss supported the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. If passed, the legislation would allow U.K. ministers not to change, but to decline to implement provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This agreement, which the United Kingdom and European Union negotiated two years ago, intends to avoid a hard land border on the island of Ireland, protect the peace process, and preserve the integrity of the European single market. It places customs checks on goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland at seaports.

Negotiations with the European Commission on the protocol stalled earlier this year, and Truss’s initial moves as prime minister suggest that her government either will decline to resume them or re-engage but refuse to make any substantial concessions. She has appointed Chris Heaton-Harris as U.K. secretary of state for Northern Ireland and Steve Baker as minister of state for Northern Ireland. Both Heaton-Harris and Baker previously served as chairs of the European Research Group, a pro-Brexit policy group that advises Conservative MPs. Whether or not Truss’s government decides to resume talks, these Eurosceptic appointments suggest that the United Kingdom will continue to act unilaterally rather than seek compromise with the European Commission.

Despite these developments, the Irish government remains willing to work with the United Kingdom to facilitate a negotiated settlement with the European Union. According to the Irish Times, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said Truss’s election is a chance to “reset” British-Irish relations, and Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs Thomas Byrne has suggested they could have a constructive working relationship with James Cleverly, the new U.K. foreign secretary. While visiting London for the Queen’s funeral, Martin met with Truss to discuss the protocol, but they did not release any statements. It is important that Dublin and London re-establish constructive working relationships. Their joint cooperation made the peace talks in Northern Ireland in the 1990s possible, and their mutual engagement sustained the peace process until Brexit began to push them apart.

Even before it lays out a full agenda, Truss’s government will face additional political tests in rebuilding relationships with the devolved governments. The assembly and executive in Northern Ireland have not functioned since the May elections, so Secretary of State Heaton-Harris might call another election by the end of October. The Democratic Unionist Party has refused to join with Sinn Féin to form an executive until the U.K. government re-negotiates the protocol. Whether a new election takes place therefore depends on the fate of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in Westminster this fall.

In addition, the Scottish National Party will need permission from Truss to hold a new referendum. In July, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected the SNP’s plan, leading Sturgeon to take legal action. In October, the U.K. Supreme Court will hear her case on whether the government can continue to require Scotland to seek permission before holding a referendum. Truss’s government also might introduce a rule that requires support for a referendum to reach 60 percent before the SNP can hold it. The support for “yes” has not reached this threshold within the past six years, meaning that the policy in effect would raise additional obstacles for the SNP.

Truss sits in an unenviable position. However these events unfold later this year, her cabinet’s policies will be vital not only to the economic recovery of the United Kingdom but also to the constitutional future of the union itself.

Ryan Conner is a research and editorial assistant at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a final-year M.A. student in European Studies in the School of Foreign Service. His graduate research focuses on the Northern Ireland peace process. Follow him on Twitter @ryanpconner50. He writes in a personal capacity.

Read more from The Diplomatic Pouch on the post-Brexit politics of the United Kingdom:



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