Scotland's renewed drive for independence further complicates an already convoluted situation regarding the UK's determination to leave the EU. Like Ireland, many businesses in Scotland are highly reliant on trade with the EU and the prospect of leaving the common market brings huge uncertainty and fear. Having received the backing of parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May today announced her intention of triggering Article 50 to begin exit negotiations later this month.
Meanwhile, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called for another Scottish vote on independence. She initiated legislation to that effect early last year, feeling that if Brexit was passed it would represent a “material” change in circumstances, warranting a second vote. A majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain within the EU, but Britain's Prime Minister is determined to prevent another Scottish independence vote until the UK has already left the EU.
Last weekend Sturgeon indicated she could be willing to wait up to two years, which is the time the Brexit process is expected to take. Sturgeon said: “If [Theresa May is] talking in the spring of 2019, a bit later perhaps than I was suggesting, there may be some room for discussion around that. But it seems to me to be just fundamentally unfair for a UK government, with Brexit having sunk the ship, trying to puncture Scotland’s lifeboat as well.”
The new political landscape will be an opportunity for Ireland and Scotland to work together to enhance trade relations. According to figures from the UK Revenue & Customs, Scotland imported £23bn worth of good in 2016, while exporting 25.5bn. Like Ireland, an independent Scotland will be based on an open economy.
At present, almost 50% of Irish agricultural produce is sold in the UK. It is difficult to know how much of this is destined for Scottish markets, but undoubtedly a proportion of it appears on supermarket shelves there. If we are going to lose some of our market share in England due to new post-Brexit trade restrictions, we may well hope that Scotland chooses to stay in the EU, which will be of benefit to Irish farmers.
The results of a 2016 survey conducted by the Scottish department of agriculture found that sheep numbers total 5.04 million while there were 1,712,000 cattle. Scotland also has important pig, poultry and tillage sectors. Beef is worth 22% of Scotland's farming industry and employs about 11,400 people. Dairy accounts for just 10% of Scotland's agricultural output. In 2013 1.036bn litres of milk was produced which was worth an estimated £411m.
While there are potential conflicts in the common export goals of the agricultural sector, it will be in our combined best interest to work together and hammer out deals that are mutually beneficial. One idea is that we focus on growing different sectors in order to reduce competition between the two areas. In addition, if this means one country agreeing to allow the other to focus its energies on certain export markets, then so be it.
A trade organisation for promoting links between the Scotland and Ireland (including Northern Ireland) already exists. The Irish Business Network Scotland was launched in January 2016 by Scottish Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs Fiona Hyslop. At the time she said, “Scottish exports to Ireland are worth around £1.12 billion while the turnover of Irish businesses here in Scotland is over £2.5 billion, supporting nearly 6,000 jobs.” Surely this organisation will grow in importance if Scotland passes its second referendum.
The future of Northern Ireland is also very uncertain right now. This region is highly reliant on EU support, especially in agriculture, which soaks up 70% of EU money, while direct payments are worth 87% of annual farm incomes. Sinn Féin leader Michelle O'Neill has suggested that the UK Treasury would not keep paying farmers to this degree: “It is my belief that the Treasury would not be willing to see a continuation of support for farmers at current levels, given they have a long held view that this type of funding does not represent value for money.”
All in all, it is very difficult to predict what the outcomes will be. Scotland will try to get a second referendum as quickly as it can, so that EU membership can be maintained, but even this would bring difficulties. Exiting the UK would require its own drawn-out legal process. Meanwhile, it may be hoped that the UK's Brexit negotiations impose a realisation that going it alone is not as easy as advertised. A political earthquake is rumbling and its implications are impossible to see as yet. Overall, it seems less and less likely that the hard Brexit currently being demanded by May's Conservatives will come to pass. Its costs will be too great.