Scotland’s lucky not to be suffering like Northern Ireland – but it’s no thanks to the SNP

Scotland’s lucky not to be suffering like Northern Ireland – but it’s no thanks to the SNP

by Owen Polley
article from Wednesday 17, February, 2021

REMEMBER how the SNP asserted that Scotland should have a relationship with the EU mirroring Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal? Whatever happened to that argument? It’s gone very quiet lately. 

In the Daily Recordback in November 2018, Nicola Sturgeon claimed that Theresa May’s NI backstop put Scotland “at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to jobs and investment”. “Similar arrangements can and should... be made for Scotland,” she wrote.  

The backstop was subsequently tweaked by Boris Johnson, and became the Northern Ireland Protocol, but the SNP remained enamoured with Ulster’s position.  

As recently as January, the constitution secretary at Holyrood, Mike Russell (pictured), tweeted that NI’s status showed the UK “could have produced a Scottish deal” if it had pursued that option with the EU. Scotland had been denied its own protocol, so “independence is the only option,” he declared.  

A few weeks later, and Northern Ireland is already experiencing the consequences of remaining linked to Brussels, rather than having its place in the UK internal market prioritised. Now, even the SNP can’t argue that Scots would be better off in a similar mess. Scotland is lucky that its nationalists didn’t get their way, but Ulster is suffering because political forces that wanted to destroy the United Kingdom were indulged.   

As soon as the referendum results were counted, back in 2016, Irish separatists started demanding Northern Ireland should have ‘special status’ within the EU. A noisy coalition of nationalists, Leo Varadkar’s Dublin government and pro-EU liberals were soon claiming, without a shred of evidence, that trade checks between the province and the rest of Ireland would endanger peace or breach the Belfast Agreement. 

To her shame, Theresa May accepted this nonsense. Perhaps it was naivety, or perhaps, as unguarded comments from her chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, suggested, she thought she could use Northern Ireland to foist an EU customs union on the whole UK, without winning the argument in the Tory party. Either way, once she’d accepted the initial backstop text – to the disbelief of Brussels’ officials – back in December 2017, her decision blighted the Brexit process from then on.  

As negotiations progressed, the language may have changed - from special status, to backstop, to Northern Ireland protocol – but the arrangements always involved NI staying effectively in the single market and applying the EU’s customs rules, while the rest of the UK left. The problem, as unionists pointed out repeatedly, was that the province did four times more business with Great Britain than with the Irish republic, still less with the rest of Europe, and its economy was integrated deeply in the UK internal market. 

As any thinking person could have predicted, the protocol has immediately proved a disaster. Supermarkets have struggled to bring goods to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, with the result that shelves have emptied and consumers have less choice. Hauliers have faced bales of expensive, complicated paperwork to ship goods from GB to NI. And many retailers have refused to send deliveries there. Effectively, they’ve given up on the province. 

All this chaos is unfolding during a three month ‘grace period’, before new rules on food safety and customs declarations are applied fully. Unless Michael Gove negotiates extensions or derogations quickly, Northern Ireland can expect even more mayhem from the start of April. 

Meanwhile, the reaction of separatists, who always put their fanaticism about breaking up the UK ahead of the economy and people’s livelihoods, gives Scotland an insight into where the SNP’s leadership might well have taken it.  

A survey by Manufacturing NI revealed that more than half of Northern Ireland’s firms have already experienced supply chain difficulties. Economists from the province’s two leading universities forecast that businesses in NI would have to get used to higher costs and greater challenges, in the long-term. One businessman, who has been transporting machinery between Scotland and Northern Ireland for 31 years, said the protocol has been more disruptive to his business than the Troubles. 

Yet, nationalists and their pro-EU allies in Ulster have done everything they can to talk down and even mock the idea that an Irish Sea border is causing disruption. One nationalist MLA, Matthew O’Toole, ordered a book from Amazon and sent it to Arlene Foster’s constituency office, in a puerile stunt intended to imply that parcels were moving freely across the Irish Sea. 

When the EU triggered Article 16, to stop Covid-19 vaccines moving into NI, there was a brief consensus that Brussels had behaved badly. Quickly, though, the nationalists and liberals were again at one with Dublin and the EU, campaigning to preserve a protocol that is causing real pain and distress to the people of Northern Ireland. They are, as a unionist MLA told Stormont yesterday, “Belfast masochists defending Brussels’ sadists.”  

Scotland is immensely fortunate its place in the UK internal market was secured and it left the EU with the rest of the country. If it had been left up to the SNP, it could have been suffering all the same problems as Northern Ireland. 

Owen Polley is a writer and commentator from Northern Ireland, who contributes to many newspapers, websites and magazines. He co-presents the podcast, PoliticalOD

Photo of Michael Russell by Scottish Government - CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99938914

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