What is the strategic issue causing senior people in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to lose their sleep these nights? In the week that Michael D. Higgins pays the first ever state visit by an Irish President to Britain, it is the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and its exit from the European Union.
In September the Scottish people will vote on independence. As Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s advisor on Northern Ireland, wrote in a thoughtful article in the Financial Times recently, a Yes vote would open up the constitutional question in Northern Ireland at a very delicate time. The Good Friday Agreement did not settle that question but was rather an agreement to disagree about it and nonetheless to share power. Unionists continue to want to remain in a united British kingdom, and nationalists and republicans continue to seek a united Ireland. Sinn Fein would up the ante in the aftermath of a Yes vote and in the run-up to the anniversary of the Easter Rising by demanding an early referendum on the Border on the same principle as the Scots.
Such a vote would have a particularly destabilising effect on the unionists, whose natural ties are with Scotland rather than England. They pride themselves on their common Scottish Presbyterian heritage, their Ulster-Scots way of talking and their common passion for Scottish dancing and football, and their children go in their thousands to Scottish universities.
The numbers in Scotland are so far not enough to deliver a Yes vote, although the momentum is in that direction. But the real nightmare is the second, related scenario: the issue of Britain’s EU membership. Things would get very complicated indeed if, while an independent Scotland was applying for EU membership (a process that would take some time), the rest of Britain was proceeding to pull out of the Union after the referendum promised by David Cameron in 2017. Would we end up with England, Wales and Northern Ireland outside the EU, and Ireland and Scotland inside?
As Powell puts it: “With borders at both Stranraer in Scotland and South Armagh on the border with Ireland, Northern Ireland would find itself in real difficulties, and not just commercially. What has enabled the free movement of people in these islands, including Ireland, since 1922 is the Common Travel Area, where all the jurisdictions have the same rules on entry from outside. With a patchwork quilt of memberships of the EU, we would have to impose travel restrictions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The notion of policing those two borders is a nightmare, and that is what really bothers policy makers in Dublin and Belfast.”
Whatever about policy makers in Belfast, this is not something that the people of Northern Ireland and their newspapers are discussing. I looked in vain in recent weeks and months for serious treatment of this vital topic by any commentator in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News or News Letter. There was plenty of arguing about earth-shattering issues like where and when Orangemen should parade during the coming ‘marching season’, but nothing about the tectonic plates shifting the constitutional relationships affecting these islands and the wider continent of which we are – notionally – a part. The Irish Times – through its former foreign editor and UCD researcher Paul Gillespie – and even faraway Al Jazeera have been discussing these issues, but not the media of ‘our wee province.’
Of course, all this may be academic. As Powell also points out, it looks probable that the people of Scotland will vote to remain in the union and thus will accept the solution on identity found in the Good Friday Agreement: nationalists and republicans can be Irish and still part of the UK. “Trying to be Sinn Féin, or ‘Ourselves Alone’, in Scotland, and raising new borders makes very little sense in the modern world,” is Powell’s opinion.
Whether Britain will go it alone by leaving Europe, as current opinion poll trends seem to indicate, is another matter. What is certain is that that Northern Ireland will be ill-informed about and ill-prepared for such an eventuality. If and when we pick ourselves up after such a huge event, we will probably notice that we are, once again, looking at Churchill’s unfortunately all-too-prophetic and much-quoted words of nearly a century ago: “The whole map of Europe has been changed … The mode of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes…but as the deluge subsides and waters fall, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”
 ‘A broken union would unsettle Northern Ireland’, Financial Times, 5 February 2014  Scotland’s Vote on Independence – The Implications for Ireland, Institute for International and European Affairs, Dublin, February 2014