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DOMINIC LAWSON: Will the UK break up? Don’t believe Sinn Fein and SNP

DOMINIC LAWSON: Will the UK break up? Don’t believe the claims of Sinn Fein and the SNP

A month before the celebrations of the monarch’s Platinum Jubilee, is the United Kingdom on the verge of disintegration? 

To judge from some headlines after last week’s local elections, which included those for the Stormont Assembly in Northern Ireland, the answer would be yes.

In that province, Sinn Fein for the first time won the largest share of the popular vote: so the leader of the party ineradicably linked to the violent nationalist struggle to unify with the Republic of Ireland will become First Minister at Stormont.

And in the Scottish council elections, the SNP got their highest ever number of councillors, marking their eleventh successive overall victory.

Not surprisingly, the leaders of both these secessionist parties linked the results to referendums on independence.

Sinn Fein’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, said a referendum to reunify Ireland would be possible ‘within a five-year timeframe’.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, congratulated Sinn Fein on what she called a ‘truly historic result’ and declared: ‘We’re going to see some fundamental changes in UK governance, and I’m certain one of those changes will be Scottish independence.’

She added that ‘work is under way’ for so-called IndyRef 2 ‘in 2023’ — though the decision to hold one is not hers.

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald (left) arrived with Vice-President Michelle O’Neill (right) at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast as counting took place for the Northern Ireland Assembly on Friday

Ms McDonald (pictured) has said a referendum to reunify Ireland would be possible ‘within a five-year timeframe’

Foreboding

Equally unsurprisingly, there has been a deal of foreboding by some prominent defenders of the Union. 

In yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, the former Conservative Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith, wrote: ‘We now have two parts of the UK where political parties avowedly dedicated to its break-up hold the whip hand … Our cherished Union has never been under greater threat.’

Well, possibly — although the time Northern Ireland was most likely to be ‘lost’ was July 1940, when Winston Churchill offered the province to the Irish president Eamon de Valera if only Dublin agreed to drop its stance of neutrality in World War II.

In the current situation, however, the ‘whip hand’ is not held by political parties, or prime ministers, but by the people as a whole.

That is the benefit of making the process subject to referendums. And there is no sign that a sufficient number of either the Scots or Northern Irish are keen on such a referendum.

An opinion poll conducted a week ago by Survation showed that just 29 per cent of adult Scots wanted another referendum ‘in the near future’.

Such a deduction can also be drawn from the full results last week. In Scotland, while the SNP were indeed the victors, when you tot up the votes won by parties dedicated to the preservation of the Union — notably the Conservatives and Labour — you find they won 55 per cent of the total.

A similar calculation can be made on the basis of the outcome in Northern Ireland.

Overall, parties against the idea of a border poll had a solid majority. And when you aggregate the votes of the two parties committed to unification with the South (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) you find that they got 39.6 per cent of the votes cast.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon with the SNP’s new councillors outside the V&A Dundee on Saturday following the local government elections

Counting during the second day of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast on Saturday

This is almost exactly the same as their total in 2017 (40 per cent), or indeed in 1998 (39 per cent) — the year of the Good Friday Agreement. So no real movement.

It was under that accord that the British Government committed to holding a unification referendum ‘if it appears likely that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom’.

The Tory Party chairman, Oliver Dowden, at the weekend reiterated this point: ‘If there is a sustained majority opinion in favour of a United Ireland, that would have to be put forward in a referendum … but I don’t think we are at that stage yet.’

Indeed not. Last month, a poll conducted for the Irish Studies Department of the University of Liverpool and Irish News, found that only 30 per cent of those eligible to vote in such a referendum would back reunification now, with 45.3 per cent saying they were against.

Abandon

That showed a large number of undecideds, admittedly. But if it did come to such a vote, there is one factor which would tend to push the undecided against leaving the United Kingdom: it is called the National Health Service.

In the Republic, unlike the UK, there is no free access to GPs. 

And the difficulty of convincing a sufficient number of Northern Irish voters to abandon this central pillar of the British welfare state — even among those attracted in principle to a United Ireland — came out strongly at a meeting organised a few months ago by a group called Ireland’s Future.

The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Colum Eastwood, told the meeting that while he believed that ‘the UK is coming to an end’, if he were in charge of the referendum campaign for the other side, ‘I’d just be running ads about how much it costs to go to the doctor’.

In the Republic you have to pay 60 euros (£51) for a visit to your local doctor, and even if you are just going back to get a repeat prescription, you are charged another 60 euros.

Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party Colum Eastwood (pictured) said he believed that ‘the UK is coming to an end’

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald pictured delivering a speech at its party conference in October last year

The SDLP leader admitted: ‘My own mother would have some difficult conversations about that. 

‘The idea we could run a campaign going into it saying, ‘You’re going to have to pay 60 euros to see a doctor’, we will lose the campaign on that alone. And that’s talking to ordinary nationalists, never mind Unionists.’

On the same panel, the Sinn Fein national chairman Declan Kearney agreed that ‘health is pivotal’. 

This sort of argument would weigh even more heavily in Northern Ireland than it might in England, in the sense that the population in the province is more, not less, reliant on the welfare state.

A similar, financially based argument also vexes the chances of the Scottish nationalists in any future referendum on leaving the UK.

It’s not so much that the Scots currently receive a net transfer of about £12 billion a year from the Exchequer, but the fact that the SNP has still not come up with any coherent argument for its policy of leaving the pound and taking up the euro, following — or so they propose — a short period with a Scottish currency, possibly to be called the Groat.

Zero

The currency question dogged its campaign in 2014, and it has not gone away.

A survey last month by the Scottish based pro-Union think tank, These Islands, showed that 73 per cent of Scots said they were not clear about what the SNP’s currency policy even was, and 77 per cent were unclear about who would pay their state pension after independence (which SNP leaders had tried, dishonestly, to claim would still be funded for decades to come by English and Welsh taxpayers).

That poll also showed something very interesting about the sensitivity of the wording of any future referendum. 

When, in April, they asked Scots the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, the outcome was 47 per cent Yes versus 53 per cent No.

But when the question was ‘Should Scotland remain inside or leave the United Kingdom?’, the outcome was 59 per cent in favour of remaining, with 41 per cent for leaving.

It is up to the Westminster parliament whether to grant Scotland a second independence referendum — and I imagine it would, if it came to that, want the question to be framed in terms of ‘leave or remain’: just as it was in the UK as a whole in the 2016 referendum on EU membership.

You can be sure the British Government will always do what it can to persuade the Scots to remain inside the Union. 

The Conservatives, whatever they say publicly, have no such commitment in respect of the Northern Irish; and people in the province know it.

But even so, the real chances of an Irish reunification referendum this side of the next general election are as close to zero as makes no difference.

To adapt the words attributed to Mark Twain: reports of the imminent death of the Union have been greatly exaggerated.

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