Brexit: The Future of Northern Ireland and Scotland

Friday, October 15, 2021
Amer Ghazzal

Northern Ireland Editor, Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Independent; Author, Burned: The Inside Story of the 'Cash-for-Ash​' Scandal and Northern Ireland's Secretive New Elite

Professor, Territorial Politics and Codirector, Center on Constitutional Change, University of Edinburgh; Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe

Executive Chairman, Newbridge Advisory; Former Chief, British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6); Former UK Ambassador to the United Nations; Member, Global Board of Advisors, Council on Foreign Relations


Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; North America Chair, Trilateral Commission; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists discuss the ongoing challenges in the post-Brexit process, the prospects that Northern Ireland and Scotland could leave the United Kingdom via referendums, and the possible implications for U.S. foreign policy in the United Kingdom and Europe. 

O’SULLIVAN: Good morning or good afternoon depending on where you are in the world today. I’m Meghan O’Sullivan. I’m a professor at Harvard and also on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. And it’s my real pleasure to host a conversation about Brexit and its implications for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the future of the United Kingdom. It promises to be both a fascinating, timely and important conversation.

So we’re more than five years after the Brexit referendum and almost two years since the U.K. formally left the EU. And we’re still talking about and really anticipating the social, and political, and economic effects of Brexit on the U.K. and its societies. And of course, we also see, we were reminded just this week with the efforts to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol between the EU and the U.K., that Brexit’s impact on the relationship between the EU and the U.K. continues to be a work in progress.

So we’re all well-aware, those signing in for this call—I imagine we’ve self-selected a little bit—but certainly Brexit has revived some longstanding challenges to the union. In Northern Ireland, it’s rejuvenated conversations about the possibility of reunifying the island and has brought into question the possibility of a border poll that is made—is made possible or was indicated could be held in the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement. And in Scotland, Scottish nationalists—I think their pursuit of independence has been revived by the prospect of becoming independent and potentially joining the EU as its own country.

In order to discuss these and other developments we’ve got a great group of three people who can bring a variety of perspectives to this issue. First, I’d like to very briefly introduce them. We have Sir John Sawers with us, who is currently the executive chairman of Newbridge Advisors (sic; Advisory). John is probably best known for his time heading up MI6, the British intelligence service. But for this conversation perhaps his time at 10 Downing Street three years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation is maybe the most relevant to our conversation. But he also served as the U.K.’s ambassador in the EU, the U.N. and elsewhere. So we look forward to hearing his perspective.

We’re also lucky to be joined by Sam McBride, who is the Northern Ireland editor for the Belfast Telegraph and the Sunday Independent. And before that, he was the political editor of the longest continuously running English language publication, the Belfast Newsletter. And that was also Northern Ireland’s unionist newspaper. And finally, we have Nicola McEwen, who’s a professor at the University of Edinburgh. And there, she heads up a program on territorial politics and constitutional change. And she’s working on a research project appropriated called “Between Two Unions: The Constitutional Future of the Islands After Brexit.”

So welcome to all three of you. Thanks for joining us. And let me just jump into some questions before, in a half-hour, we turn this over to our members to ask some questions. So I’d like to start on Northern Ireland and on the issue of the legacy of the Troubles. And certainly during the Brexit negotiations, the durability of peace in Northern Ireland was foremost on the mind of all parties involved in the negotiations. And I wondered if, Sam, maybe I could go to you and then, John, if you wanted to also contribute some perspectives there. How does the legacy of the Troubles shape these ongoing negotiations between the U.K. and the EU that we’ve seen, of course, come to our headlines in the last week or so? So, Sam, let me start with you there.

MCBRIDE: Thanks, Meghan. And I think that if we go back to just before the EU referendum for some context, and to where we were in Northern Ireland, it was the most secure position, I think, that Northern Ireland has had constitutionally in its almost one-hundred-year history at that point. It is now celebrating its one hundredth birthday. Celebrating is probably the worst term for that, because half of the community in Northern Ireland are not celebrating. And those who would like to be celebrating are finding it rather difficult to celebrate because of the COVID restrictions, et cetera.

But if we go back a few years, this was a very settled society in the context of what we had come to expect here. And it was Brexit which really disturbed that equilibrium. And that equilibrium, flowing from the Good Friday Agreement in 1990, it had been this very delicate balance where all sides to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to the very violent conflict that went on for thirty years, were able to claim some sort of benefit from how that had ended. So the IRA had not won. They had not driven the British out of Ireland, as they wanted to do. And in fact, they really hadn’t come anywhere close to that. But they had got into government. They had managed to make Northern Ireland a little bit more open to the rest of the island. They had reduced some of what was the very tough border security infrastructure, et cetera. So Northern Ireland felt and looked very differently.

And on the unionist side, they were able to say, well, look, yes, we’ve made those concessions, but we’ve got peace and we’ve got a situation where constitutionally we’re still British. And that ultimately is what unionism believes in. So both sides were able to fudge that a little bit. And Brexit was the moment where that was impossible. It caused people to go back into their trenches. And really since then they haven’t left. So all of this comes back to the positions that people once had during the Troubles. And those positions were camouflaged to a certain extent by how the Good Friday Agreement managed to resolve that. And now that camouflage is starting to peel off.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you, Sam.

John, would you like to add a little bit to that?

SAWERS: Yeah. Well, I think Sam is right. I mean, the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement was never straightforward, and there were still issues there. But the violence—any residual violence was very much at the fringe. It was very—driven as much by criminal goals as anything else. So I share Sam’s view that the decision on Brexit unbalanced the stability of Northern Ireland. And I think that was—that’s what we’ve been grappling with since.

You asked how it impacted on the—on the negotiations. I think when Theresa May was prime minister in London she was very conscious of the—of the implications for the Good Friday Agreement. And that was one reason why we never reached agreement under her leadership, was she fully accepted there shouldn’t be a border on the island of Ireland, but she also saw that it was important to maintain the balance in the Good Friday Agreement that there shouldn’t be a border in the Irish Sea either, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

And I think the—and the issue came to a head with the EU was particularly adamant on this. They prioritized the protection of the single market, which includes the Republic of Ireland. And that was their single, ultimate goal in here. I think they didn’t really understand the complexities of the Northern Ireland agreement, the EU negotiators. They thought it was simply about not having a border on the island of Ireland, and then everything would be solved. But we all know that’s not the case. You have to balance between the two communities and their connections, as Sam says. Nationalists with the south and unionists with the east.

And but Boris Johnson, in his haste to get Brexit done, signed an agreement without either thinking through the implications or without any intention to respect it. And I think we’ve seen in the proposals that came forward from the commission—European Commission this week, that European Commission now recognized that the rather rigorous, shall we say, to put it kindly, elements of the Northern Ireland protocol, we don’t need them all to protect the single market. So there’s going to be some pulling back from that.

But the issue—you know, the pandora’s box is opened. And the Northern Ireland politics has been effective already. Sam would be better placed to describe that than me. And there’s the whole question of the governance of the Northern Ireland protocol, whether the European Court of Justice should have a role in determining trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That’s also coming on. So these issues get more complex as they run on.

O’SULLIVAN: So, John, before I go back to Sam to ask him about, you know, prospects for a border poll and the whole question of potential unification, are you implying to our listeners that you think that the challenge around the protocol is on the verge of being resolved? And you’ve pointed out two of the most important issues related to it. Do you see a resolution on the horizon?

SAWERS: Well, I think there’s a—there is definitely scope for a resolution, but it needs a political will on both sides. And I think the British government is asking for a great deal from the European Union. The European Union has offered something, but it may not be enough. And I think there will be some intense negotiations now. But this—the politics, of course, are difficult here. And I am concerned that the events of the last couple of years may have alienated the unionist community too far.

I think Northern Ireland’s business community actually want to get this resolved. They’re probably reasonably happy with the—with some of the proposals coming out of Brussels. And they see advantages in being part of the United Kingdom market and the European Union market. But politics doesn’t follow the interests of business, necessarily. And certainly, from the U.K. side, we would like to see this resolved. But whether our government has the wit to find a neat way through here which brings the Northern Ireland unionists with us is another question.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you.

Sam, let me bring it back to you, first for a comment on if you think this resolution is likely. And certainly, you might want to comment on the implications of not successfully resolving this protocol issue in a timely manner, and what that would mean for the politics of Northern Ireland, potentially a collapse of the developed institutions. But I’d also—I think we would be interested in getting your perspective. You made the point that the whole Brexit reality has pushed different political factions back into their traditional corners.

And just looking at recent polls, a May 2021 polls that I saw had 44 percent of voters in Northern Ireland wanting to stay in the U.K., 35 percent wanting to leave. Leaving a quite substantial number undecided. What do you think are the—what is the likelihood that there would be a border poll? What are some of the—what are some of the issues that need to be satisfied before that could happen? And how destabilizing could that be? I know that’s a lot of questions, but—

MCBRIDE: If I maybe start from the end and go in reverse order here. And so I think the criteria for a border poll are—in one sense, they’re quite straightforward. They’re laid out in the Good Friday Agreement. And in another sense, they leave really enormous ambiguity. And so it is for the secretary of state for Northern Ireland—that’s the British minister who represents Northern Ireland in the London Cabinet—and it is for him or her—although, actually, in the legislation it says him. So I think maybe that they didn’t quite think that there was a possibility of a “her” at that point. But they will be legally obliged to make a call for a border poll if they believe that it is likely to be won by nationalism.

So if they think most people in Northern Ireland no longer want the country to exist, they will have to call that or the courts will intervene. Now, do you prove that they—that there are certain criteria which they should take into account. There has been some litigation about this in the high court in Belfast. It hasn’t really clarified anything. That’s a huger battle. But we’re not really there yet.

Where we are at the moment on the protocol is pushing some people into the center ground, which is a new and emerging group in Northern Ireland, a very significant group. And really the first time in the history of Northern Ireland that we’ve had this significant cohort of swing voters, if you like, constitutional swing voters who could go ither way. And people who were born Protestant, or Catholic, or whatever it might be, but they don’t necessarily say that they’re going to follow what their parents, and their grandparents, and their great-grandparents, and everyone before them did. They might just go a different way because it’s in their interests.

And they are being pushed more towards Irish unity, I think it’s clear, from the unfolding of Brexit. For the most part they don’t like Brexit and they are happier with the protocol. But that is difficult to resolve, because from a unionist perspective there is a fundamental misunderstanding of their position here in Brussels and in Washington. And it really makes them feel particularly isolated right now. And as John alluded to there, there is essentially a narrative both from the White House and from Brussels that the Good Friday Agreement means you can’t have a border on the land mass of Ireland. You can’t have an Irish land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Actually, that’s not in the agreement at all. It’s simply not there. You could read it several times; it’s simply not there. There was an implicit understanding that there would be a fudging of this, as I said at the outset, but it wasn’t written down. And there is also then the flipside of that, that if it is in the Good Friday Agreement that you cannot have an agreement which Irish nationalists do not want on the island, well, surely logically then it follows that the agreement also would not permit a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, which unionists don’t want.

So they really look at this and think that nobody understands them, nobody cares about them. And that’s always been something which unionists have been predisposed to. They’ve got as siege mentality. But I think that that is quite dangerous. And I was covering riots earlier this year. And young people—I saw children being shown how to make petrol bombs by older people. And this is being passed on to new generations. It’s not just about high politics.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. Yes. I’m reminded when I first was working on this issue that we saw it in the context of inevitable greater and greater unity in the EU, and that all of these border questions would become less and less relevant. I think none of us imagined the scenario that we find ourselves in today.

Nicola, you’ve been patient and I’d like to bring you into the conversation. Of course, you may have some views you want to share with us on these issues regarding Northern Ireland. And certainly, the issue of the protocol and issues related to Northern Ireland are closely watched in Scotland. And I wonder if you could say just a few words about a connection you see between these two issues and how people are looking at the prospects, and even how the Scottish are looking at this tussle over the protocol.

MCEWEN: Yeah, thanks very much. And thanks for the invitation to come along today.

First thing, I would say that I absolutely agree with everything that’s been said around the importance of the EU context in which the Good Friday Agreement was introduced and implemented. I would also say the same for the system of devolution in the other parts of the U.K. as well, including Scotland and Wales. So the fact that that political autonomy was taking place within the European Union helped to make identity issues a bit more fluid. It helped people with different identities live together comfortably. It helped to minimize the extent to which political autonomy might make the different parts of the U.K. to pull apart, to go in different directions in public policy terms.

And so there is no doubt now that Brexit and the decision to leave the European internal market has created new challenges for the system of devolution within the U.K. as well, which are creating quite big political difficulties between the governments. But it’s also raised the issue, again, of Scottish independence, not least because a very comfortable majority, 62 percent, within Scotland voted for the U.K. to remain within the European Union. So there is this sense, particularly among nationalists in Scotland and among those who lead Scotland—the Scottish National Party is the dominant force now—that Scotland has been taken out of the EU against its will, expressed in the referendum.

So we now see a much closer alignment between the independence project and the project of European integration. And we see that also not just among the political elite but among voters as well. So there is now much more—a much closer alignment between those who voted remain in 2016 and those who would vote yes to independence now, so much more so than any other time in history. And you’re absolutely right that developments in Northern Ireland and in Ireland, actually, with its relationship with the U.K., now that the U.K. is outside of the internal market, these things are being observed quite closely in Scotland. Because although Brexit has created the political opportunity for independence, and for another referendum so soon after the last one—it’s strengthened that political case, but it’s made it much more complex. And it’s made it more complex because of the border between Scotland and the rest of the U.K.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you. Just staying with you, Nicola, on this. We’ve often heard Scottish nationalists make an economic argument for Scottish independence. But I saw a recent study by the London School of Economics saying that the cost of Scottish independence would actually be much greater on the economy than the impact from Brexit. How important—we talked about how business and politics are not always aligned. But how important are the economic arguments in the Scottish context?

MCEWEN: I think they are important, but very few people would argue that Scotland couldn’t afford to be independent. It’s not the poorest part of the U.K. by any means, but there would be an economic cost. And interestingly now, and the pro-independence side tends to acknowledge that. There was a sustainable growth commission report a few years back that acknowledged that there would be a fiscal gap, a fiscal deficit, and there would need to be consolidation in the early years of independence. Now, they stopped short of talking about fiscal austerity, because that’s not particularly popular, as you might imagine.

Brexit and COVID, of course, has created a bigger fiscal gap. So the economics of independence are difficult, and they’re difficult to argue now, and more so than in 2014. And then there’s a whole host of reasons for that. But I think that it’s still there, and I think it still matters at the margins. And the margins ultimately will decide this thing if there is another referendum. But the government tends to push more with a democratic case now—so getting the governments that we choose, having a say over the future of Scotland without having to depend in the direction of travel that the U.K. government, and particularly Boris Johnson may take Scotland in.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you.

John, let me turn to you related to this question on the economics of potential Scottish independence, what this could mean for the rest of the U.K. in terms of economics and security. But also, maybe you could comment or give us at least your take on Boris Johnson and his likelihood of allowing for another referendum in Scotland, which I know is something that appears to be required—although everyone may not agree that it’s required. Nicola may want to chime in again on that.

SAWERS: Well, you smile, Meghan, but I think the economic arguments are there. I agree with Nicola’s assessment. Scottish independence is a political campaign with economic implications. And issues such as the 2,000 pounds a head—that’s almost $3,000 a head—transfer from London to—net transfer, that is—from London to Scotland is a big issue, and the Scots would somehow have to close that gap. And also, there’s a question of what currency would an independent Scotland use. And these issues are relevant.

But I think there’s a risk of the British government taking too much comfort from them. The British government at the time relied too heavily on economic arguments, I think, in the 2014 Scottish referendum, and definitely in the 2016 Brexit referendum. And politics and identity outweigh economic considerations if there’s a real passion behind a cause. And certainly, there is a body of opinion in Scotland, Nicola knows it well, which is very committed to independence.

I think the independence process has been slowed a bit partly by divisions within the SNP between the Sturgeon and Salmond camps. I think that’s damaged the reputation a little bit in Scotland of the nationalists, but I don’t think it slowed it. And whether Boris Johnson would agree to it? My interpretation of the recent reshuffle in London was that Mr. Johnson is preparing for an election in May 2023, some eighteen months or so before he needs to call one. But that would work well in terms of his political timeline—recovering from COVID and so on.

And he’s quite—and having a plausible, but not particularly charismatic opponent in Keir Starmer. And I think that would cause a problem for the Scottish nationalist cause as well, because they would like to have an independence referendum that year, and you can’t really do the two in parallel. So I think that for a number of reasons the timeline for Scottish—a second referendum is being pushed back a bit. And Boris Johnson will never say no. He will always say, not yet. But that “not yet” may last for a while.

Can I add one other important point, Meghan?


SAWERS: As Sam has implied, and he knows the Good Friday Agreement better than anyone, but British governments have said successively that there is no strategic interest of the United Kingdom in the future of Northern Ireland. That it’s up to the people of Northern Ireland whether the province remains part of the United Kingdom or changes to be—to join with the Republic. That’s not the case with Scotland. The union with Scotland goes back three hundred years.

And it’s a union of two nations, when the king of Scotland became king of England as well. And the integration is very, very deep. It wasn’t a short-term solution to a problem which manifested itself before and after the First World War. It was a—it’s a more fundamental and thoroughgoing integration with Scotland. And Scotland plays a crucial part in Britain’s defense, and security, and economy, and culture, and all aspects of our lives. So there is a different view from London towards the two potential issues of Northern Ireland and Scotland.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you, John. I think that’s important and actually probably feeds a little bit into one of Sam’s original points about the insecurity of unionists in their place in the union, not being perceived perhaps as vital, as much as a security interest as you were pointing out for Scotland.

I think we have time for one more question before we’ll open to our participants. And I’d actually like to touch on something that any or all of you might have a few words to say about. We’ve talked a lot about the impact of Brexit on the political situation in both Northern Ireland and in Scotland. But COVID obviously has been something that has played in. And, actually, Nicola, you and John both mentioned COVID in the context of these political developments. So I’m wondering to what extent has how the government—how London has handled COVID, and how the individual—you know, the Northern Irish government or the Scottish government, what they’ve had to do during COVID. How has that impacted the political debate or the prospects for independence? Has that been a notable factor?

And, Sam, let me start with you on that.

MCBRIDE: Well, early on—and Boris Johnson is such an unpopular leader both with unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. It’s probably one of the few things that they can manage to agree on these days. And that his response to COVID was seen as flippant. It was seen as unserious. And he was seen as somebody who was being reckless. He was going around shaking hands with people when the advice was not to do it—basic things like that. And that it was seen by Sinn Féin as a huge boost for them.

They said: Look at this man who is—and they didn’t quite put it in these crude terms—but it was basically saying: Look at this man who’s killing people in Northern Ireland with his recklessness, because he doesn’t care about this. And playing on what Sir John has said there, about the sense that Northern Ireland isn’t really strategically or in any other way significant to people like Boris Johnson. And look, there is an alternative. We could join with the Republic. They’re doing much better. They’ve got a serious leader in Leo Varadkar, et cetera, et cetera.

And that then dissipated. And things have gone up and down across the pandemic. We were much faster getting the vaccine rolled out in Northern Ireland than in the Republic, and partly because they’re part of the EU system. We were slightly faster on that front. And so things have moved. But one thing which really struck me at the start of this was how the pandemic exposes decentralized parties now within the United Kingdom.

So I was sitting at home in this room watching the television, watching the prime minister address the nation, as a journalist and as a citizen, and it was a very somber night. He was saying things that you normally hear when you’re going—when the nation is going to war: People are going to die. Stay at home. Don’t leave your house. Things that no one had ever heard before in our—in our lifetimes. And at the end of it, there was a move from the BBC then up to Scotland, where the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, made a similar address. Then they went to Wales; Mark Drakeford, I think it was, gave the Welsh address there. And there was nothing from Northern Ireland.

And I wondered. So I phoned somebody very senior in Stormont, in the Northern Ireland devolved government, and I said: Are we covered by what the prime minister has said? Does this apply to us legally or is this devolved? He didn’t know. He thought it did, but he wasn’t sure. And it really brought home to me how—and then several times after this there were moves to restrictions in England. They didn’t apply in Northern Ireland. Maybe they didn’t apply in Scotland. Maybe something happened in Wales, but it doesn’t apply in England. If you go back fifty years, that didn’t really happen.

Suddenly there was a sense here where even to somebody like me, I’m paid to understand the line between what is devolved, what is retained in Westminster, et cetera. I didn’t know. People didn’t know. It was genuinely very confusing. And the final thing which it brought home to me is that it was almost a point coming where it was in the public interest for the BBC, as the national broadcaster, not to broadcast in Northern Ireland what the prime minister was saying. And the same would be true in Scotland. The same would be true in Wales. Because what he was saying was potentially going to confuse people. Now, that then brings home, what is a country? And what is his role? And so we are seeing a move towards some sort of federalized system here in the U.K.

O’SULLIVAN: Interesting. As an American, it’s a little heartening to realize we’re not the only ones who had conflicting messages. Nicola or John, would you like to comment on this before we go to our members?

MCEWEN: Yes, to say that I agree with everything that Sam said except the last bit. So I don’t think we’re moving towards a federalized system. But what I do think is that COVID revealed the extent to which the U.K. government sometimes governs only for England. So what it revealed in a sense was the big absence of a devolved system for England. And it’s not that the U.K. government was unaware of that, but they were deeply uncomfortable with that. And that’s why I think you get—we got the communication issues where sometimes the prime minister in particular was uncomfortable with saying that this was a message for England alone.

So what COVID did was make devolution more visible. And it also raised the profile of the devolved leaders in public health areas. We saw that particularly in Wales, where Mark Drakeford had had—the Welsh first minister—had had a lower profile, and it was boosted during COVID. Last year for about six months when Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, was judged to be doing well in terms of her handling of the pandemic, support for independence increased. And we had twenty polls in a row where there was a clear majority in favor of independence, at the time when nobody was talking about independence. But it was seen as a judgement on her performance.

And it wasn’t so much that she was doing things that differently from the U.K. government, but it was about presentation, and communication, and trust in the messenger, I think, as well. But there are areas where the governments have had to come together and have had to agree things—have decided to agree things on a four-nations basis. This is the language that has come to be used, even though it’s deeply problematic in Northern Ireland, of course, as well.


SAWERS: Can I just—can I just add, Meghan, I entirely agree with Nicola about the impact of devolution on raising the profile of regional leaders, especially in Wales and Scotland. And Nicola Sturgeon is probably the most effective communicator among British politicians at the moment that we have. And she used those skills very effectively. But it is slightly tarnished because the SNP record on health and education in Scotland is not as good as the record in the rest of the U.K. But of course, that’s glossed over a little bit. Nicola may challenge that point.

But I think it was a—it was a—from a London point of view, it was a real shock to Boris Johnson. He’d only been prime minister about six months when COVID struck. But he was—in matters of health, in a national crisis like a pandemic, he was only really prime minister of England. And that the decisions in the other three territories were devolved. Now, that doesn’t make sense when you have restrictions on international travel, when there are no borders and no border checks between the four nations of the—of the U.K., but it was—nonetheless, it made it much more awkward.

And that usual sort of bluff, let’s not negotiate, let’s be boosterish, everything’s going to be fantastic sort of approach of Boris Johnson, he was really brought down a few pegs as a result of the complexity and his lack of seriousness. And we had a very bad year one of COVID. We’ve had a much better year two of COVID. And so I’m not sure how—what its long-term effect will be. It’s been more about the standing of individual politicians, I suspect, rather than impacts on political movements like independence.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you very much. Really fascinating.

I’d like to turn to our members. If you are interested in making a comment or a question, please indicate so by raising your hand. And, Teagan, I’ll turn to you to help me identify those who would like to speak.

OPERATOR: Certainly.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Peter Galbraith.

Q: Hello and thank you for really a very informative program.

I’d like to drill down on the question of the Scottish referendum on a couple of points. First, what happens if the government in Scotland wants to go ahead with the referendum and Boris Johnson doesn’t agree? I mean, I hear what Sir John says about delay. But what actually happens if he doesn’t agree? Second, if Labour should win the election, surely it would have to be in coalition with the SNP. Would that actually guarantee a referendum?

And, third, one of the things about referenda on independence—and I’ve followed quite a few—is that momentum—even if the polls at the beginning show something rather even, the momentum tends to favor the independence side. That’s certainly what happened in 2014 as the—as the date of the actual vote approaches. So do you think that if a referendum occurred under these circumstances, that the vote would definitely be “yes”? And finally, several of my Conservative MP friends, actually, have kind of indicated, well, it wouldn’t be terrible if Scotland left because it would guarantee the Conservatives, you know, long-term power in England, given that Scotland has only one or two Conservative MPs. Is that just a one-off sentiment, or is that really something that exists under the radar?

O’SULLIVAN: Thanks, Peter. That’s a fulsome question, let’s say. So let’s start with Nicola and then go to John on that.

MCEWEN: Yeah. So on the reality of a referendum, what we expect to happen is that the Scottish government will introduce legislation into the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a new independence referendum. It will simultaneously try to secure consent from the U.K. government to transfer authority to put that issue beyond doubt. It will almost certainly be refused that authority, at least this side of a general election, probably after one too. (Laughs.) And what I expect to then happen is that the legislation will pass within the Scottish parliament. The U.K. law officers will use their power to refer the issue to the Supreme Court.

What the court decides will depend on whether they think the referendum has the purpose of ending the union. If they judge that it has the purpose of ending the union, then that will, I think, lead them to the conclusion that it’s beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament to pass that legislation, because that would clearly be an issue for the U.K. Parliament. But if they decide that it’s actually about just consulting opinion and then they might come to a different conclusion. I think ultimately focus has to be about the politics.

There’s no—even if there is a referendum that is judged to be legal, unless it is seen to be legitimate by all sides then that will affect the legitimacy of the outcome. And we’ve seen that in other cases recently as well. And there is no question that the Scottish government and the SNP will not look to have a unilateral declaration of independence. They know that the international community wouldn’t buy it. They wouldn’t want to do it anyway. And they would need a negotiating process with the U.K. to do this through a legal—a legal route.

And I’ll answer the question on Labour, but I’ll leave John to answer the question on the Conservatives, if that’s OK. The Labour Party don’t look in a position to win the next election. But also, they have been, so far at least, opposed to an independence referendum. And they are really all over the place and deeply uncomfortable with the constitutional issue from the start. What they might do is try to pose something that looks more like federalism, that looks more like a constitutional middle ground, and go into an election like that. But so far, they don’t have a clear enough position. And they’re almost certainly also likely to rule out any coalition with the SNP, because they know that that plays very badly within England. And it’s the English constituencies that they would have to win, because they’re unlikely to win them in Scotland.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. John.

SAWERS: One of the issues that was influential in the 2015 general election in England was precisely the one that—in the U.K., rather, but particularly in England—was the one which Nicola points to, which is that Conservatives were reporting real opposition on the doorsteps to the deal of a Labour-SNP coalition because it would—exactly as Peter says—it would lead inexorably to a second referendum, and probably to independence in Scotland. And this provoked a backlash against Labour in England. So I think Labour are going to be very careful before they go down this road.

And also, I mean, Nicola knows this territory better than I do, but Labour and SNP are directly competing with each other in many areas of Scotland. They’re both left-of-center parties. They have constituencies which are overlapping. The SNP has decimated Labour in many areas. Labour now has a new leader who is quite credible and plausible in Scotland. Whether he can make inroads into that. And people like Gordon Brown and other leading Scottish Labour figures will do what they can to help that. And I think Gordon Brown’s idea of federalism I think will be developed over time as an alternative strategy that the Labour Party might be able to adopt.

Within the Conservative Party I’ve got no particular insights about it. I think there are some—there are a lot of lazy thinkers in the Conservative Party. And one sort of lazy thought they have is that, you know, if Scotland goes, well, we’re going to remain in power forever in England. Well, politics isn’t really like that. It doesn’t really work in that way. I think the question of who lost Scotland would be a huge matter across the U.K., if it ever got that far. So if there are people thinking along the lines Peter suggested, I think it’s pretty lazy, short-term thinking.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Teagan, could we take another question?

OPERATOR: Certainly. We’ll take our next question from Diana Negroponte.

Q: Good morning and thank you for a fascinating debate about both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

My question is directed to Sam McBride. And it concerns this morning’s front page in the Financial Times, in which EU Commissioner Sefcovic talks about the likelihood of France, Germany, Netherlands, with the support of Span and Italy, carrying out retaliation against the U.K., should the prime minister decide that he’s going to withdraw from the protocol through what is known as Article 16. And you probably have to explain to our viewers what this darn article means. Is it serious or is it just bluff?

MCBRIDE: Thanks, Diana. And so, first of all, Article 16 doesn’t quite do as much as you maybe think there in terms of doing away with the protocol. It would do away with parts of the protocol on a proportionate basis on a—on a timebound basis, perhaps, and would really be the starting point for further renegotiation of what is in that. So it’s not going to get rid of it.

So from the unionist perspective, this is not the death of the protocol, even if that happens. But it would be a very significant moment and it would be a very fraught diplomatic moment. I think that, clearly, there are people in the EU who think that the U.K. has acted dishonorably here, frankly. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, or whatever his title was, his key advisor has suggested that—over recent days he has been suggesting that Boris Johnson never meant to stick to this protocol. That he signed up to this knowingly trying to trick the Europeans, basically, into going along with this.

I think, though, it’s probably a mistake to simply view this in terms of two great powers, if you like, the EU and the U.K., locking horns. Because if that’s the way we view this, then Northern Ireland gets crushed in the middle. If this is actually about preserving peace in Northern Ireland, it’s about looking at the facts in Northern Ireland, has the protocol preserved or enhanced peace this year? Unquestionably, it hasn’t. It has led to riots in the streets. It has led to deep societal difficulties. It has also led to some preposterous outcomes. I can’t order a bareroot apple tree from Yorkshire because it has some molecules of British soil on the roots, and that’s banned from Northern Ireland.

You know, things which really irk people because they seem irrational, and they get to the heart of what does it mean to be a country? What does it mean for Northern Ireland to say that it is still constitutionally British if actually we’re treated in a—in a place where laws are made by a foreign parliament, to which we no longer elect MPs, et cetera, et cetera? So it’s a very complex situation. It is, I think, moving closer to resolution than it was two or three months ago. But it’s not just as straightforward as France and Germany might want to retaliate and therefore Britain might back down. If that does happen, that will lead to deep instability in Northern Ireland again.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. Teagan, do we have another question in the queue?

OPERATOR: Yes. We’ll take our next question from Martin Flaherty.

Q: Yes. Hi. And thank you for a wonderful discussion. This is Martin Flaherty, Princeton University and Fordham Law School.

Professor O’Sullivan began the session with reference to legacy. And I wanted to ask the panelists to comment on the British government’s proposal, essentially, for an amnesty with regard to political violence that occurred during the Troubles. Among other things, it’s—to be charitable—inconsistent with several agreements between the U.K. and Ireland. It’s opposed by all the parties in Northern Ireland. And it would be a real outlier when it comes to transitional justice globally. So I’m wondering what the panelists think about the prospects of the government to retrench and withdraw, at least in part, their proposal.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Sam, why don’t I start with you, see if John wants to jump in. And if you could maybe give our participants a little bit of context on this proposal.

MCBRIDE: This is a plan to pass a law in Westminster which would basically be a de-facto amnesty. The government doesn’t like to describe it in those terms, but that is basically what it would—what I would mean. And it would mean that all sides who are party to the troubles—so that would include the IRA, that would include loyalist paramilitaries, that would include the British security services, the police, et cetera, et cetera—would all be entirely beyond the criminal law. So no matter what future evidence emerges, no matter who might come out and confess or say that something has happened, nothing could happen to those people.

That’s a very significant change from what was in the Good Friday Agreement. What the Good Friday Agreement said was that we’re going to release the prisoners. We’re going to stop people going to jail for a long time if they’re convicted in the future. So you will only serve two years of your sentence even if you killed twenty people. That’s what society is saying is a reasonable way to move on here. But this is going far beyond that. This is saying that there is no prospect of justice whatsoever.

I think there are huge problems with this. I think one problem is how it looks in Northern Ireland. It looks like the British government from a nationalist perspective don’t care. And worse than that, that they are trying to protect their own forces. I think that there’s a pretty cynical position from Sinn Féin here, the political representatives of what was once the IRA. And they do want this for their own members who were in the IRA, who might be convicted, but they don’t want it for anybody else. So they are saying one thing but actually privately they are quite happy, I think, by this.

But finally, I think what is really significant out of this is what maybe some of the unintended consequences here. If you have a situation where Joe Bloggs, who committed a terrible atrocity, is able to with impunity go around and boast about that, is able to impugn the reputations of the people that he killed, is able to make allegations about them and there is no legal sanction for that, I think that’s very, very dangerous. So I think there’s a temptation from the government’s perspective that they can close the lid on this and just make it go away. I don’t think this will do that at all.

SAWERS: If I could just add—I’m not an expert on this proposal. And I’d be surprised actually if it made progress into law in the way Sam has described it. I think one of the drivers from a London perspective is a sense that the participants in the Troubles were released from prison, there’s been—a lot of people were given a degree of amnesty—not total amnesty, but a degree of amnesty—especially on the Republican side. But the notable participants who have not had any such benefits were those members of the British security forces.

And I think the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that sense that politically motivated allegations against members of the armed forces can be advanced. I’m not saying they’re all politically motivated. I’m absolutely clear in my mind that there are things that the British security forces did in Northern Ireland which they should have been held to account—but not fifty years later, or forty years later. And I think this is part of the problem that is trying to be addressed in London, but in a rather clumsy way.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you. I actually am going to jump in and ask another question, but in the meantime, I want to encourage our participants and members to identify themselves. We have a time for a couple more and I look forward to them coming from the participants this morning.

I’d like to ask a question about the prospect of a United Ireland. I’ve listened to some observers say that given there could be—there could well be a border poll at some point in the future, that there should be conversations about what reunification would look like. And, Sam, I’d like your perspective of whether you think this is actually a constructive proposal, or whether you think this is a divisive proposal, and why.

MCBRIDE: If I—if I can not sound too much like a politician when I say this, I think that it might be both. I think that some people who make that proposal are trying to be very constructive. They’re trying to say: Look, we want a new Ireland. We want to reshape this entire island. That must include unionists. It must include Protestants who in 1921 when the island was partitioned did not want to break the British link. And we are reaching out the hand of friendship here. I think from the perspective of other people, that is not necessarily the case.

I think, though, that if you think about this in strategic terms, it doesn’t make any sense for unionists who don’t want Irish unity to engage in conversations about how it might be made more palatable. Because if it is more palatable, some people who might be unionist and certainly people in the center ground are more likely to vote for it. So actually, I think the logical place for unionists—and some Republicans are quite open about acknowledging this—is there will be very little engagement from most unionists. There will be outliers. There will be people who will get involved. But mostly, they will stay out of this.

If a border poll is won by Republicans, then I think that is the point at which serious negotiations begin. That’s not straightforward, because then you’re into the territory of what should this new state look like? Is it a unitary state? Is it a federalized system? Et cetera, et cetera. Does devolution in some way survive in Northern Ireland? Does Northern Ireland survive as an entity within a single Republic? All of those questions to be addressed after the event, which won’t be easy. And Brexit shows how difficult it is to put the cart before the horse there. But I think that is probably realistically what we’re likely to get.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you. Teagan, I’d like to turn back to you and our members, please.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Charles Landow (ph).

Q: Thank you very much. I had the honor to work on some Northern Ireland issues with Meghan at one time. It’s a great pleasure to be with all of you.

If I could ask a question of Sir John. Obviously, one set of issues stemming from Brexit relates to the things we’ve been talking about, the union, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Another set, I think, relates to the U.K.’s position in the world diplomatically, economically. Leveling up, perhaps, economics both within the U.K., and the trade and so on with the world. I wonder if you could speak a bit about the status of those conversations in London, and how the U.K. sort of sees itself and the priorities on that front. Thank you.

SAWERS: Well, thank you, Charles. It’s a slightly separate question, but I think the British government under Boris Johnson is looking to define a different role for Britain after—now that we’ve left the European Union. And the integrated review we published earlier this year, actually by—written largely by a very prominent Ulsterman, John Bew—actually has a very good fist at defining how the U.K. might reach beyond its sort of European framework and take part in the economic prosperity and security issues in Asia, and how we could use our membership of international organizations and our convening power as a country.

Now, it’s one thing to say this; it’s another thing to deliver. We’ve got COP-26 coming up in just a few weeks’ time. And we’ll see if this British government can deliver a real success there. Actually, the outlook for that doesn’t look particularly rosy at the moment. But the lacuna in the integrated review was it didn’t really address the future relationship of Britain with the European Union. And we may come onto that before we finish, about what the European Union dimension is on here. But I think Boris Johnson is looking, and his government, is looking for a wider role.

Things like the AUKUS agreement with Australia, which was negotiated initially between the Australians and the British, and then the United States was brought in as an essentially player, obviously. I think that does show some of the scope for the U.K. to play a role beyond its European region. But I think one effect of the U.K. leaving the EU will be to pull the U.K. actually closer—even closer than before under the American wing and be part of an American alliance. Now, quite what direction America takes is another matter. (Laughs.) But I think that is the likely direction of the U.K.

O’SULLIVAN: I’ll refrain from commenting on that, John. But before we take one more question from our members, I just wanted to turn to Nicola and see if she wanted to add anything about the EU dimension of some of the issues we’ve been talking about.

MCEWEN: Yes. In a sense—and 2014 is when the last—the time of the last independence referendum in Scotland. And the EU was institutionally silent, but politically made it clear that it didn’t really like the thought of independence for Scotland. And it was—and I think the idea of independence was anathema to the project of European integration at that time. I think opinion in Brussels has changed. And it’s changed as a result of the very clear endorsement of the EU that we’ve seen from the SNP government. Now, that doesn’t mean that they would do anything to encourage the process at all. They won’t intervene. It will be still treated as a domestic matter. But I think it is a changed perspective. And there is some sympathy now with the predicament that Scotland finds itself in as a result of Brexit.

And I think that’s where we might sort of think about what would EU accession look like if Scotland did get to that point, of becoming independent and seeking to rejoin the European Union. Some of the political difficulties that Spanish member states might have had in the past would still be there, to an extent, but it would be easier to point to this being a different situation from Catalonia, that now—and I think some of the flexibilities that we’re starting to see in relation to the protocol might give us some indication as to what might be possible for the real big challenges that would face an independent Scotland trying to negotiate its position within the European Union as a new member state. I’m speculating, of course. There will be no formal position on any of this this side of accession negotiations, if they ever happen.

O’SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you. I am going to make the best of these last two minutes, take one quick last question.

OPERATOR: We will take our last question from KT McFarland.

Q: Hi. KT McFarland. Former Trump administration, Fox News.

For Nicola and for Sir John, is an independent Scotland a financially viable nation-state?

MCEWEN: Yes, it is. But it would be difficult, particularly in a transitional period. So it’s relatively easy to talk—to point to the economics at the moment, which do indicate that Scotland spends more than it raises in revenues. And you can look to any part of the U.K. to say that, apart from the southeast of England. What nationalists would say is that’s the position of Scotland in the union, and being independent might over the longer term, the medium term, create new economic opportunities. So you don’t actually get that many people—even passionate unionists—who would argue that Scotland is not a viable independent state economically. What they would argue is that the benefits of the union economically are greater than the risks associated with independence. So it isn’t really argued in those terms that you suggest.

SAWERS: Meghan, can I just chip in on this? I agree with what Nicola has just said. But I just want to go back to this European dimension. As Sam was saying earlier, the fact that Britain and Ireland were both members of the EU meant that was a real solvent for the Good Friday Agreement. It managed to manage those problems within an EU context. I think the—I’m someone who didn’t think that leaving the EU was a good idea. And I want the EU to succeed. But the European Union is facing a myriad of problems at the moment, and challenges. Some of them legal challenges, including from the German Constitutional Court, human rights issues with Poland and Hungary, issues of energy policy with the energy crisis and its relationship with the energy transition. And I sense that there’s no appetite at all in European capitals for either greater integration or greater enlargement.

Now, there are five accession candidates already, none of them anything like as ready as Scotland would be to join the EU. But there’ll be plenty of people to say, actually, why should Scotland jump the queue ahead of Albania, and Macedonia, and Montenegro, and so on? And I think the enthusiasm for the EU is diminishing around the EU. And if it’s still in its present level of integration of 2030, it will actually have had quite a good decade. And it’s quite possible it goes backwards. So the—and Brexit adds to those problems, and I think it was a bad idea. But it also means it’s a little bit—I’d be a little bit wary. I mean, Nicola has followed this very closely, more so than I have, but I’m not sure that the idea that Scotland would be welcomed with open arms into an EU beset with its own problems is one we should take for granted.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you, John.

I know we could continue, and in fact, John, I think you’ve set a good agenda for the next conversation. And there’ll be those who would want to follow up and even maybe contest your diagnosis of the EU. But that said, we’re at the top of the hour. And I really want to thank all three of you, and all of our members who joined today, for such a fascinating and really nuanced and detailed conversation about some very important and dynamic political issues. So thank you very much for your time on this Friday. Thanks to all our members for joining. And I wish you all a good weekend.


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