Brexit, Northern Ireland and Scotland: Comparing Political Dynamics and Prospects in the Two ‘Remain’ Areas

Kirsty Hughes and Katy Hayward 
Picture Credit Kirsty Hughes

(1) Introduction

The two ‘Remain’ areas of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland – are mostly analysed separately in Brexit debates. Northern Ireland faces a unique complex of problems given the challenge of managing the Irish border as an external frontier of the EU alongside protecting the operation of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In Scotland, attention has focused mainly on the argument over devolved powers and on pushing for a ‘soft’ Brexit – after an abortive attempt at a new independence referendum in 2017 on the back of the Brexit vote.

But there are important similarities as well as differences – and both Northern Ireland and Scotland will be deeply affected by the nature of the final withdrawal agreement and any future trade deal. The EU context has underpinned the current constitutional settlements in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Changing that context is in principle and practice a deeply unsettling prospect. Unsurprisingly, Brexit has led to intensified debate around independence in Scotland and calls for a border poll in Northern Ireland on Irish unification – debates which, in many ways, distract from effective representation of their Remain-voting majorities as the Brexit process unfolds.

In the absence of an executive, and with only the Leave-supporting DUP (plus one independent MP) taking seats in Westminster, Northern Ireland’s interests in Brexit are not proportionately represented at UK level. Nevertheless, given the Irish government’s insistence, with the EU’s backing, on protecting the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and avoiding a hard border (ambitions now explicitly shared by the UK government), Northern Ireland has been centre stage of the Brexit debate in a way that Scotland has not.

The Scottish government did ask early on for differentiation to keep Scotland at least in the EU’s single market. And differentiation is most likely to be part of the answer for Northern Ireland. Ironically, it is the inseparability of the fortunes of the devolved areas that has hardened the UK government’s reluctance to agree to differentiation for Northern Ireland. Even aside from its current dependence on support from the unionist DUP, the government does not want to set any precedent on differentiation for Northern Ireland that the Scottish government might then also demand (as it is likely to do).

The tension here is an interesting one. The Scottish government has had little input into the UK’s overarching Brexit strategy, while the DUP has had substantial chances for influence (mainly behind closed doors rather than through published reports or policy papers). In contrast, in the formal consultation mechanisms of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) – and the JMC (EN) [EU negotiations], Scotland has been represented at political level, with Scottish government ministers criticising but also engaging with this mechanism. For Northern Ireland, however, the absence of a sitting executive due to the collapse of power-sharing arrangements between the DUP and Sinn Féin in January 2017, has meant representation has been at civil service not political level, which constrains the scope for influence.

Furthermore, the fact that the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly passed their own EU ‘continuity’ bills as part of their opposition to the perceived ‘power grab’ of the EU Withdrawal bill and the related argument over the development of new common UK frameworks only serves to accentuate the major deficiencies in Northern Ireland’s current participation in UK Brexit policy making and political debates.

Here we consider political and policy dynamics in Northern Ireland and Scotland and what they tell us about the state of Brexit politics in the UK today.