Identity conflicts, Brexit pose threat to UK’s union

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By Kerry Boyd Anderson

Sinn Fein’s historic victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on May 5 and the Conservative Party’s large losses in local elections in Scotland on the same day have reinforced questions about the United Kingdom’s ability to remain united.

Today’s challenges to the union have deep roots in history, including years of war between England and the nations of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Wales has been under some form of English control since the 13th century. The kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland were united under one monarch for the first time in 1603, when James VI of Scotland inherited the English and Irish thrones and moved his court from Edinburgh to London. This was followed in 1707 by the union of the English and Scottish parliaments into one assembly at Westminster, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain, and the 1800 Acts of Union that created the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Large segments of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish populations opposed the consolidation of English control. Political union was largely imposed through military force, economic dominance and English settlement. The Irish rebelled multiple times and eventually achieved growing degrees of independence in the first half of the 20th century, with most of the island becoming an independent republic in 1949, excepting the counties of Northern Ireland that remain part of the UK.

Many powers were devolved from London to national legislatures in the late 1990s. Following referendums in Scotland and Wales in 1997, both nations received their own legislatures with devolved powers. And the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles, devolved many powers to a Northern Ireland legislature for the first time since 1973. Today, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all part of the UK with their own national parliaments legislating on many local issues, while the British Parliament in London takes key decisions for the entire country.

For several years, devolution appeared to provide sufficient local control to reduce interest in full independence.

A 2014 independence referendum in Scotland failed. UK membership in the EU allowed British citizens to embrace their own individual mix of national, British and European identities.

However, the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU struck at the modern foundations of the union. Majorities in England and Wales voted to leave, but most voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the EU. Brexit left many residents of Scotland and Northern Ireland feeling like the English had decided their fate against their will. The Scottish National Party, which is the dominant party in Scotland, has called for a second independence referendum by the end of 2023. Multiple polls from 2020 and 2021 showed significantly increased support for Scottish independence, hitting a peak of about 58 percent of people in Scotland saying they would vote for independence. Many Scots believe their own leadership managed the pandemic better than London. However, polls in January and April of this year suggest that enthusiasm has moderated and a referendum today could easily see the same result as 2014.

Brexit was especially problematic for Northern Ireland. The 1998 peace agreement was based on the assumption that the UK and the Republic of Ireland would both remain members of the EU, which allowed for an open border and smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic without political reunification. Brexit fundamentally undermined that foundation.

The creation of a hard border between Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland (outside of the EU) would risk renewing violent conflict, among other problems. Therefore, London and Brussels accepted the Northern Ireland protocol, establishing checks on goods crossing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party strongly opposes the protocol, as it applies rules to Northern Ireland that are different from the rest of the UK. Today, London is trying to renegotiate the protocol. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein supports reunification with the rest of Ireland.

The UK was struggling with its postcolonial identity well before Brexit, but Brexit stripped British citizens of a practical European identity and ran contrary to the wishes of majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Many saw it as a reassertion of English identity over European and other national identities. The simmering resentment against England increased in other parts of the UK.

Strong drivers threaten the union. Differing identities, the postwar and postcolonial loss of a shared mission, anger at English dominance, devolution of power and the practical impacts of Brexit raise the very real prospects of Scottish independence and renewed conflict in Northern Ireland, which could eventually lead to reunification with Ireland. Wales is more integrated with England, was more pro-Brexit and lacks a viable independence movement, but it has reasserted a sense of its unique cultural identity.

Other factors weigh against breaking up the union. While Brexit propelled the Scottish independence movement, it also created new complications, including a potential hard border between England and an independent Scotland. Additional economic and security issues complicate Scottish independence. In Northern Ireland, unionists vehemently oppose any type of division from the UK; demographics do not favor them in the long term, but reunification with Ireland is a long way off. The most immediate threat to Northern Ireland is the collapse of the power-sharing system and the Good Friday Agreement, which could spark renewed conflict. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland face major political and legal complications in pursuing referendums to leave the UK.

While the practical obstacles are significant, identity often trumps practical realities. Brexit and the pandemic, combined with identity conflicts, are shaking the union’s foundations.

–Courtesy: Arab News