THE UNION SEEMED to be of little relevance during the 2015 general election given the rejection of Scottish Independence the previous year and supposed triumph of the Union. This all changed following the vote to leave the EU, which the majority of the electorate in both Scotland and Northern Ireland opposed. Nationalist parties in Scotland and NI have all seized upon the result as an opportunity to appeal to Remainers who perhaps wouldn’t have supported them in the past, to prioritise membership of the European Union over the Union with the rest of Britain.
In Scotland, the Union is set to be the defining issue of the general election, following Nicola Sturgeon’s declaration of her intention to hold another Scottish Independence Referendum. The SNP will see the upcoming election as an opportunity to reaffirm their mandate having won 54 out of 59 seats in 2015, and will portray any electoral success as an endorsement of Scottish Independence. They face increased competition for Westminster seats from the Scottish Conservatives, led by Ruth Davidson.
The Conservatives have successfully positioned themselves as the pro-Union party in Scotland, with Davidson backing Theresa May’s rejection of Sturgeon’s request for a second referendum, claiming it would be against the wishes of most Scots. Labour, having already lost 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, will struggle to be heard in this debate. Especially given that Jeremy Corbyn was initially reported as being “absolutely fine” with a second Scottish referendum before he clarified that his party were in fact opposed to it. This ambiguity may mean Labour find it difficult to appeal to voters with strong views on either side of the Union debate. The Union is always a contentious issue in NI elections, but unlike past elections the prospect of a United Ireland seems actually feasible.
In the March assembly elections, Unionists lost their overall majority for the first time. Sinn Féin now only hold one less seat than the biggest Unionist party, the DUP. Sinn Féin have argued that like Scotland, the North of Ireland is entitled to a vote on whether they remain part of a post-Brexit United Kingdom. While Nationalist Sinn Féin have talked of a “border poll” for many years and been paid little outside attention, there is now sign that a United Ireland seems like a realisable concept for many.
The EU have confirmed that in the eventuality of the unification of Ireland that Northern Ireland would automatically become a member, after the question was posed by the Irish government. Nationalists will hope that this prospect of continued EU membership persuades more voters to back a United Ireland on a practical basis. English voters can do little but look on with uncertainty and perhaps a little concern about debates in other parts of the United Kingdom over its very existence.