View from the Street: Four nations, one people?

@cstreetpartners

View from the Street: Four nations, one people?

"We may be four nations but at heart we are one people."
 
Such were Theresa May’s words during June’s General Election when she promised to build a ‘stronger’ union. How time flies, eh?
 
Many of her party members might have faith in this sentiment and I’m sure the prime minister does herself. After all, unionism has been at the heart of the Conservative and Unionist Party since its inception. Andrew Bonar Law opposed Home Rule for Ireland in the early 20th century, while John Major argued against devolution to Scotland and Wales on the grounds it could weaken the ties that bind the country together.
 
Over the past week, we have seen this commitment put to the test as the prime minister attempted to juggle the various demands of her own government, the European Commission, the Irish government and her partners in parliament, the DUP, around the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic post-Brexit. Arlene Foster’s party had proved the most resistant to the PM’s plans this week, initially scuppering a deal between the UK and the EU that would allow the next phase of negotiations to begin.
 
This morning, however, an agreement was finally reached that appears to have appealed to all parties, but questions remain over May and her government’s ability to maintain the UK’s constitutional and economic integrity across the rocky path leading to Brexit during the next 15 months.
 
Like the rest of us, Sinn Féin’s leaders weren’t expecting the Brexit result, but it may be the gift of a (political) lifetime. For the first time since 1921, the party believes a united Ireland is within reach. There has always been a significant minority of small-n nationalists who, while they wouldn’t vote for a unionist party, were nevertheless content to remain in the UK. These people would be the deciding factor in any vote on Irish reunification, and Sinn Féin now considers them ‘in play’. They just might, in the ‘right’ circumstances, go for it. An opinion poll published in Northern Ireland yesterday showed that, if there was a hard Brexit and the UK left the EU with no deal (which is certainly a worst-case scenario), 48 per cent would opt for a united Ireland, while 45 per cent would stick with the United Kingdom.
 
What’s changed then? This group of voters was comfortable in the UK because EU membership and funding assuaged their latent fears about identity and heritage. Irish nationality, as elsewhere, has become a fluid concept in the 21st century. But the prospect of a hard border with the south (even in theory), the continuing absence of a functioning assembly and the fear of an isolationist mentality pushing the UK down an unwelcome path could prove a tipping point.
 
The soft unionist and nationalist cards are in the pack, and Sinn Féin’s in looking for the opportunity to play them. What an irony it would be if a unionist, Conservative government dealt them a royal flush. Hence the government’s concern with preventing a hard border and putting Irish arrangements into a UK-wide context.
 
In Scotland, the SNP could yet be winners, too. The Scottish electorate rejected calls for a hasty second referendum on independence, but depending on how Westminster handles the Brexit negotiations, the constitutional question could be back on the schedule, and the debate held under very different conditions. Many No voters in the 2014 referendum based their final decision on economic reservations around currency and the impact it could have on house prices and their own savings and investments. If staying in the UK poses an equally risky bet to Scotland’s economy post-Brexit, the Yes movement could find itself in a much stronger position next time round.
 
Still, unionists shouldn’t despair. After all, it is Theresa May’s self-avowed "personal priority" to protect the union - surely she will be thinking through these issues with her “one people” hat on. The hard truth is that if the Conservatives want to ensure our four nations stick together, they need a Brexit deal that works for all of them.