Euan McColm: Dublin love-in keeps indyref2 hopes alive

Whether or not it was the First Minister's intention, her reception in Ireland has raised expectations of an early indyref2, writes Euan McColm.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a Q&A session with students in Dublin. Picture: Niall Carson/PA WireScottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a Q&A session with students in Dublin. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a Q&A session with students in Dublin. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The First Minister has been quite clear: the House of Lords is a democratic outrage. Those who support the existence of the unelected upper chamber are guilty of practising a politics that’s out of date and out of touch.

Nicola Sturgeon is a tireless critic of the unelected Lords. It’s proud SNP policy that the party will never nominate candidates to sit on the red benches of the second house.

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But sometimes, it appears, a democratic outrage is not a democratic outrage. Sometimes what looks awfully like a democratic outrage is actually a bastion of democracy.

Last week, Sturgeon flew to Ireland to talk about the impact of Brexit, but the EU wasn’t the subject that dominated the trip. After a speech to the Seanad – Ireland’s unelected upper house – the First Minister listened while senator after senator stood up to offer support for Scottish independence.

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For some reason destined to remain unknown, Sturgeon was a great deal more comfortable with the unelected chamber in Dublin than she is with the unelected chamber in London.

Earlier in her trip, the First Minister told a group of Irish businesspeople that she favoured a “Celtic corridor” of closer co-operation between the Republic, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

Sturgeon may have travelled to Ireland to argue in favour of Scotland having a special relationship with the EU, but the trip turned into something else. Talk of Celtic heritage and the remarks of senators fuelled a nationalist love-in, which must have been hugely enjoyable for all of those participating but may be viewed more sceptically by those as yet unconvinced by the First Minister’s case for independence.

Will No voters be swayed by seeing Sturgeon hailed by Irish politicians who draw comparisons between the SNP and those behind the Easter Rising of 1916? I don’t anticipate a bounce in support for the break-up of the UK being created by the First Minister’s trip to Dublin.

A poll last week (and the results of a single poll may be treated with some scepticism) showed that support for Scottish independence is no greater than it was in 2014.

Scotland’s new binary Yes-No politics may mean the SNP can win election landslides but the party has failed to convert enough No voters to make a frequently dangled second referendum anything like a goer.

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With these facts in mind, the SNP’s focus should now be on the domestic political agenda rather than on constitutional arguments. Those who remain unconvinced of the case for independence require reassurance not revolution.

After a prolonged period during which the Scottish political debate refused to move away from the constitution, opposition parties have begun scoring points by hitting some pretty big policy targets. The Scottish Labour Party’s Kezia Dugdale has impressed with her leadership on the issue of underperforming trains. She’s forced the First Minister on to the back foot and, with a campaign to freeze regulated train fares, has found an issue with middle Scotland appeal.

Some Sturgeon allies say that the SNP, after nine years during which it succeeded in blaming the Westminster government for whatever failures in services became apparent, is starting to feel a tension with voters.

Complaints about trains, on top of repeated failure to meet hospital waiting time guarantees, on top of concerns about numeracy and literacy levels in schools have created quite the pile of trouble for the government.

All things are relative, of course. The SNP remains the dominant force in Scottish politics. But everything the SNP has achieved in the past decade was possible because the party gained a reputation for competent government. The erosion of that reputation – however gradual the damage – could only damage the SNP’s pro-independence argument.

It is for this reason that some SNP figures believe that the First Minister will push ahead with a second referendum in the near future. One former SNP strategist argues that if the First Minister waits until after the next election, there will be no pro-independence majority among MSPs, and she’ll be just another leader in decline, regretting what she didn’t do.

Certainly, the pressure on Sturgeon must now be huge. When she is not campaigning on the issue of Scotland’s place in the EU, she is (according to loose-lipped civil servants) micro-managing a ministerial team that “looks better than it sounds”. And, all the while, the polls won’t shift.

The First Minister staked a great deal on the EU referendum. Having argued for many months that a result which saw Scotland “dragged out” of the EU against its will would sharpen Scots’ hunger for independence, she has been forced to contend with a reality that has failed to deliver this boost for her constitutional case.

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The fact remains that if the First Minister was to call a second independence referendum, tomorrow, she would expect to lose it.

Unionists are fond of predicting that she won’t hold the vote at all, that’s she’s too scared of losing to call one unless the polls predict a comfortable victory. It’s certainly true that Sturgeon is not a reckless politician; she’s clever, she thinks things through. But she is also a committed Scottish nationalist and she knows that opportunities to break up the UK don’t come around all that often.

When the First Minister went to the democratic outrage that is the Irish Seanad last week, she fired up her own side in the ongoing constitutional battle.

One former party staffer believes this was the intention; that Sturgeon is getting ready for another serious crack at winning independence. I’m not sure I believe this calculation was made but I find myself wondering why on earth she wouldn’t call another referendum soon.

The First Minister has talked herself into a corner on the subject and now failure to follow through with a second vote on the constitution would be a climbdown of such magnitude that it might rank as a democratic outrage.