By Jason Michael
The London government’s refusal to consider the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland is leading the United Kingdom into a constitutional crisis. The question of who has the final say over sovereignty in Belfast and Edinburgh is about to be asked.
On Friday last the Institute for Government, a leading independent UK think tank that aims to improve the effectiveness of government, warned Theresa May that her intention to pursue a hard Brexit while ignoring the concerns of the devolved governments runs the risk of triggering a full blown constitutional crisis. Generally speaking this means a breakdown of governance at the level of the state resulting from a dispute over sovereignty within the branches of government – the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. In this case, however, the threat is coming from the growing likelihood of a disagreement on sovereignty between the devolved parliaments and Westminster.
The United Kingdom’s last experience of such a crisis was between 14 December 1918 and 6 December 1921 when Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin Party won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in the House of Commons. As Sinn Féin had pledged not to take up seats at Westminster – a policy of abstentionism the party continues to the present – a parliament known as the First Dáil was convened in Dublin on 21 January 1919. The Dáil’s first order of business was the reaffirmation of the 1916 Proclamation and a Declaration of Independence. Hostilities between British forces and the Army of the Irish Republic broke out that same day in County Tipperary. Ultimately the British administration collapsed and King George V asked his Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to ask for a truce. On 6 December 1921 the truce ended with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, establishing the Irish Free State that would in 1948 become the Republic of Ireland – recognised by Westminster in 1949.
It goes without saying then that the Westminster government does not like constitutional crises, and yet Mrs. May is doing everything in her power to instigate one. Scotland and Northern Ireland can only be pulled so far before their governments will be forced to protect the interests of their people, and from their decision to remain within the European Union at the Brexit referendum these governments have a mandate to resist Westminster.
Aware that the above brief history of the 1918 constitutional crisis reads something like a Better Together scare story, it is important to remember its context within the historical Troubles between Ireland and Britain. This impending crisis is not going to lead to war. Some hard-line unionist youths may gather in George Square, there may be a few “Red Hand of Ulster salutes (ahem),” possibly someone may be punched, and Scottish Twitter will get broken. There will be no McFadyenian “widespread outbreaks of violence,” let alone a war.
While it is impossible to predict how this will unfold exactly, we can guess with a degree of certainty that it will continue to follow its present course until all sides reach a deadlock. May, it is safe to say, has already passed the point of no return. She now cannot back down on her hard Brexit stance on the free movement of people without inciting a larger backlash in England and Wales, and – considering Switzerland’s recent interactions with the EU – Europe will not move from its position.
The Scottish government will be given no option but to follow through with a second independence referendum, and given the danger posed to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement it is probable that a quadrilateral agreement will be sought between Stormont, Leinster House, Westminster, and the Espace Léopold on the future of Northern Ireland. In the event that Scotland opts for independence this time round the Scottish government will also pass the point of no return. Westminster will have a simple choice to make; either to accept – as in the Ireland Act of 1949 – Scotland’s choice, or to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the vote.
If the London government does refuse to accept Scotland’s democratic decision the constitutional crisis becomes real – the sovereignty of Scotland will be actively disputed by the Scottish government and Westminster. At that point – if it goes that far – Edinburgh, rather than having to declare independence, will most likely simply affirm the decision of the Scottish people. As a nation that won’t be governed can’t be governed by a power it has rejected, London will have to accept a new reality.
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Author: Jason Michael (@Jeggit)