The First Minister and other leading figures in the Yes campaign have been keen to emphasise the continued associations and partnerships in which an independent Scotland would share. While independence might mean the dissolution of the Anglo-Scottish parliamentary union, many other unions – including a currency union, a social union and the union of crowns – would be maintained and some services shared within a renewed partnership of the British Isles.
These claims have been challenged by the Better Together campaign and the UK government. The Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, recently accused the SNP of “creative thinking” about what independence really means, and argued that instead of continuity it would mean “turning our backs on our shared interests”. Other UK ministers, from the chancellor to the foreign secretary, have likewise contested the assumption that continued associations would be in the interests of the rest of the UK. Since any offer of partnership needs a willing partner, this seeming reluctance can be difficult to counter.
This Wednesday – the same day that we begin the year-long countdown to the independence referendum – the most senior civil servants in the UK government will engage in high-level deliberations to cement another partnership on these islands. The relationship between the UK and Ireland has undergone a step-change in the last few years. Building on their joint work to promote the Northern Ireland peace process, the two governments now engage extensively across many areas of government policy.
This enhanced British-Irish relationship was kick-started by the Queen’s visit to Dublin in 2011 – the first visit to the Irish Republic by a British monarch since independence. Filled with symbolically significant acts including the laying of a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance, this visit signalled a normalisation of British-Irish relations, generating and reflecting feelings of goodwill between both countries. The relationship was reinforced by the joint statement issued by Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny in March 2012. Their statement underlined the shared history, culture, business and family ties, shared interests and co-operation in trade, and a close alliance within the European Union. It also confirmed their commitment to “a decade of renewed and strengthened co-operation between our two countries”.
That statement initiated intensive, centrally co-ordinated, collaboration between officials across both governments. It led also to the joint commissioning of a study into the depth of economic relations between Britain and Ireland and of the opportunities for closer integration. This study, by PA Consulting, reported in July, making recommendations for enhanced bilateral co-operation which were immediately endorsed by the PM and the Taoiseach. The two governments had already agreed a work programme to advance co-operation in a wide range of areas including energy, financial services, infrastructure, transport, R & D, agriculture and food, and EU relations.
Maintaining peace in Northern Ireland remains a concern, but the relative stability of politics in the North means it no longer tops the intergovernmental agenda. So, when the British permanent secretaries and Irish secretaries general group – the civil service of the respective governments – have their annual meeting this week, it will give the go-ahead to some of the many joint projects that British and Irish officials have been developing since 2011, and will look to the future for opportunities to solidify the new British-Irish partnership.
All independent states work with others to some degree, but the extent of intergovernmental co-operation between the UK and Ireland is significantly greater than the engagement either government has with any other country. What’s more, in spite of the vast differences in population, resources and political standing, the relationship appears to be conducted among equals. The UK has not used its relative strength to impose its will. An aura of mutual respect prevails. Of course, the issue of where power lies would only really be tested once a dispute emerged – something which has so far been avoided in the will to search for, and find, areas of agreement.
There is a sense, too, that such co-operation is in the mutual interests of both countries. For the UK, Ireland represents its closest ally in the European Union and the two governments share many policy positions in EU negotiations. They also have shared economic interests resulting from a strong trading relationship and inter-linked economies, businesses and workforce. In energy, one of the areas where co-operation has been most extensive, both also have what the other needs: Ireland has the geography, the climate and the will to generate vast amounts of renewable energy; the UK apparently has the will to pay for it, reflecting its need to feed energy demand and meet EU obligations.
All of which begs the question – if it is in the interests of the UK government to collaborate so extensively with independent Ireland, why would it not also be in its interests to co-operate extensively with an independent Scotland? Scotland and the rest of the UK would almost certainly maintain a strong trading relationship. The UK government’s own analysis indicates that while the rest of the UK is Scotland’s biggest trading partner, Scotland is the second biggest market (behind the United States) for goods and services produced in the rest of the UK.
Citizens would continue to travel and work across the internal borders of the British Isles. Firms and financiers would continue to invest. It is impossible from this vantage point to determine whether the fact of independence would generate new barriers to such activities, but it is reasonable to conclude that the rest of the UK would have at least as much interest in co-operating with Scotland as it does with Ireland.
There are caveats, however. British-Irish co-operation today emerged from the particular context of the Northern Ireland peace process, and it is buoyed by a personal rapport between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. If the referendum results in a Yes vote, the conditions under which Scottish independence was secured and negotiated, and the degree of trust or mistrust those negotiations generated, would affect the nature of the intergovernmental relationship to follow.
Second, although the leaders’ Joint Statement initiated an unprecedented degree of British-Irish co-operation, it is arguably less deep than the relationship envisioned by the Scottish government, especially around currency issues.
Nonetheless, to many observers, it may seem contradictory for the UK government to champion broader and deeper collaboration with Ireland while simultaneously appearing reluctant to entertain the continued associations being proffered by advocates of Scottish independence. • Dr Nicola McEwen is an ESRC senior Scotland fellow and director of public policy at the academy of government, University of Edinburgh