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Brexit and the divided kingdom?

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Brexit and the divided kingdom?

With a Northern Ireland snap election shaking up the political landscape there, and Theresa May taking aim at Scottish nationalists, we examine the constitutional fault lines in the British Isles.

Northern Ireland: scandals and polarisation

For the first time in modern history, nationalists in Northern Ireland have come within one seat of their rivals to deny unionist politicians a majority in Stormont, the seat of the region’s devolved government.

Although the right-wing, pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is still the largest party, its political opponents Sinn Fein are hot on their heels with 27 seats to their 28.

Scandal upon scandal, mainly concerning the DUP, culminated in revelations over a botched energy scheme (overseen by the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster) which saw one farmer standing to earn hundreds of thousands of pounds for heating an empty shed .

Several people close to DUP party members continue to benefit from the scheme, which could burn a 500 million GBP (578.8 million euros) hole in the public purse and have immeasurable consequences on the very environment the scheme was supposed to protect.

This was the last straw. In the wake of the scandal, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, who was Deputy First Minister, stood down when Foster refused to resign (even momentarily pending investigation) as First Minister. This triggered a snap election.

At 65%, voter turnout has not been higher since the 1998 referendum that ushered in the end of the Northern Ireland conflict and established the power-sharing agreement between nationalists and unionists.

Some analysts believe the increase in turnout and the surge in popularity for Sinn Fein vindicated McGuinness’ move and conveys the frustration that the nationalist community and more centrist unionists feel towards the DUP.

The disillusionment has only crystalised since the electorate, which voted by 55.8% to remain in the EU, may now be taken out against their will.

Just over one week before election-day it was revealed that Northern Ireland was being used like an offshore bank by Brexiteers who funneled 425,000 GBP (492,000 euros) anonymously through the DUP for a campaign which appeared in London.

This coupled with irregularities about electoral campaign funding only added fuel to the fire the renewable heating scandal started.

So it seems that a large portion of the electorate sought to punish the DUP at the polls. And punish them they did. Many of those who continued to vote DUP, according to commentator Brian Feeney, did so because of “the politics of fear that Arlene Foster’s campaign generated”.

With two parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum on practically every issue sharing power on an almost equal footing, two things look poised to unfold: further division and political deadlock.

With the votes in, Ms Foster reportedly locked herself away in a room with the curtains drawn to conduct private meetings with party officials.

Her next move will largely determine whether devolved power-sharing can continue in Northern Ireland, or if it will be a return to direct rule from Westminster.

One thing is certain: with an increased mandate, Sinn Fein will be a thorn in UK PM Theresa May’s side in the inevitable negotiations about the province’s border. It is an issue dreaded by many in the north as potentially triggering a renewed conflict.

Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams said his party’s surge in popularity showed that nationalists were opposed to Brexit.

He once again called for “special designation” from the EU for the region in order to prevent the return of a “hard border”. He also described the result as “a vote for Irish unity, a vote for us together as a people”.

The party’s new leader, Michelle O’Neill, will be watching her Scottish counterpart Nicola Sturgeon very closely hoping for Scottish independence to lead the way for a united Ireland. But neither Westminster, nor the unionist community, would let this come to pass without a struggle.

What about Scotland?

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, UK Prime Minister Theresa May took aim at the ruling Scottish National Party, accusing nationalists of putting themselves and the United Kingdom in jeopardy with their “obsession” over gaining independence.

Scots voted against independence in 2014 by just 10.3%. But opinion polls show that since Brexit that margin, though still there, is closing.

The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been keen to remind the Prime Minister that she has “no mandate” in Scotland, having only one conservative MSP to their 54.

May said that she would lead the whole of the UK out of the European Union before making her most pointed criticism of the Scottish government to date.

“We all know that the SNP will never stop twisting the truth and distorting reality in their effort to denigrate our United Kingdom and further their obsession of independence,” May announced in Glasgow at the Scottish Conservative conference. “A tunnel vision nationalism, which focuses only on independence at any cost, sells Scotland short.”

Scotland’s Brexit minister, Mr Russell hit back on Twitter saying that the: “Most glaring example of ‘tunnel vision’ in UK today is Tory [Conservative] obsession with immigration which is driving disastrous Brexit process.”

The SNP has stepped up calls for a second referendum, saying May’s “sheer intransigence” in Brexit talks could push Scotland, which voted by 62% to remain in the EU, out of the bloc’s single market and end EU immigration.

Sources close to the Edinburgh administration told Reuters last week they are increasingly confident they can win a new referendum and are considering calling one next year.

May insisted she saw no economic case for the United Kingdom to break up and dismissed Sturgeon’s fears that the government in London could use Brexit as an excuse to take back powers from her government in Edinburgh.

“As I have made clear repeatedly, no decisions currently taken by the Scottish Parliament will be removed from them,” she said, after the SNP aired fears that London may take decisions over fisheries and farming policy – areas the government might look for compromise in EU talks. “I am determined to ensure that as we leave the EU, we do so as one United Kingdom, which prospers outside the EU as one United Kingdom.”

Theresa May’s economic argument does hold some water in that the Scottish economy is sluggish. The oil revenues lauded during the last independence referendum as the economic driving force of a newly independent Scotland have collapsed. In 2016 North Sea Oil revenue amounted to 60 million GBP rather than the 8 billion GBP reportedly predicted by Alex Salmond less than three years ago. But Brexit means that the economic future of the United Kingdom is equally murky.

Independence votes are not always founded on rational thinking. As we have seen, with the Brexit vote, sentiments can outweigh hard economic rationality at the polls.

With nationalist movements in both Scotland and Northern Ireland gaining ground, and a “hard Brexit” looking more and more possible, Theresa May’s government could quickly find itself with few friends left in either Europe or the UK. Even former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has called for “more charm and less cheap rhetoric” in Brexit negotiations.

On Sunday 5th March, EU officials warned the UK that it must honour all its financial obligations after a House of Lords report published the previous day argued that the British government would be on strong legal ground if it chose to leave the EU without paying anything. In what has become a recurring theme in EU counter attacks, one ranking diplomat used the analogy of a pub saying: “This is simply what the UK owes. If you buy a pint in a bar, you have to pay for it even if you don’t drink it.”

Given how unpopular the Conservative Government is in Scotland, antagonising Nicola Sturgeon could very easily backfire.

As Sinn Fein look on from across the Irish Sea, it will not forget the old dictum quoted just over 100 years ago by James Connolly, a Scottish-born man instrumental in Irish independence. He said: “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.”