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The recent decision of the UK to begin the process of leaving the European Union calls for fresh thinking on what has become known as ‘the totality of relationships’ on these islands.
Only the peoples of England and Wales have actively chosen this path, the electorates in Scotland and Northern Ireland having voted to remain.
Given that the Republic of Ireland also remains strongly pro-EU, is it not time to give consideration to new constitutional arrangements for the entire north-western flank of these islands?
A tri-state confederation made up of the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland with continued membership of the EU makes sense from various standpoints: political, economic and cultural.
Notwithstanding the prerequisite for independence referenda in Scotland and Northern Ireland, post-Brexit realpolitik cannot fail to recognise that there is strong support for continued EU membership in all three states.
There is also the very compelling case that open borders across the three states would obviate the need for the reinstatement of an internal Irish border, thus removing any rationale (spurious though it may be) for a return to the republican paramilitary violence that blighted this country for decades.
From a northern unionist perspective, the very real prospect of Scottish independence leaves them very much cast adrift from an England-dominated UK. Unionists of all hues already find themselves uneasy about the future of the existing Union, living, as they do, in a stat e where they have lost their Stormont majority, where the demographics are against them and where the greatest threat to that union comes not from the nationalists within but from those a short distance away across the North Channel.
That those who now most threaten the union are, for the most part, their own kith and kin can only add to the sense of unease.
Wouldn’t it be considerably more palatable to retain a political link with their neighbours and historical kinsmen just thirteen miles away across that narrow stretch of water?
For the Unionists of the north, their future would be secure in a confederation where those with a Protestant identity would comprise slightly more than half the population.
Yes, they would lose the link with the London but, in a much-shrunken United Kingdom shorn of 50% of its 1801 landmass and where they find themselves ever-more marginalised and less influential, how could they ever feel secure?
From an Irish nationalist perspective, a degree of hard-won independence would have to be ceded to the new confederal authority but equally a union of north and south, of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, in the true republican tradition of Wolfe Tone would at last be achieved and the link with Westminster would be broken.
Most importantly, the EU border would be at Hadrian’s Wall rather than at the Black Pig’s Dyke!
For the Scots, the idea of giving up a degree of independence as soon as it is gained might seem counter-intuitive but the obvious attraction is the prospect of continued EU membership as a part of a larger English-speaking alliance.
Furthermore, for Scottish Catholics, the traditional sense of being Scottish but never truly belonging would disappear as they could easily identify with their Irish cousins in the new union.
And for Scottish Protestants – largely Presbyterian – surely the prospect of an alliance with their Ulster Scots brethren and the potential to bring to bear a political influence that was never possible in Tory-dominated Westminster would be an attractive possibility.
The confederation of three states would provide ‘the best of all worlds’ for all the traditions in both Ireland and Scotland.
From an economic standpoint, a union of three English-speaking states within the EU with a combined population of some 12 million people and more than half of its land mass would have considerable clout.
The current situation where the three governments compete with each other for foreign investment is, self-evidently, in no one’s best interests.
Working together, a union of the three states could, in time, become an economic powerhouse in its own right. This is not fanciful.
The region has vast natural resources in oil, wind and wave power and it has highly fertile lands and seas that have already spawned a world-class, multi-billion euro/pound food-based economy.
All three existing states have also been highly successful in attracting some of the world’s leading companies in information technology and pharmaceuticals, in particular; and given that our populations are already among the best educated in the world, the potential for future success is boundless.
And we haven’t even begun to mention the shared cultural imperatives such as music, dance, and the Gaelic and Ulster Scots languages that impel us to come closer together.
With a second Scottish referendum and a completed Brexit just two to three years away, we have a very short window of opportunity here. Let us begin to imagine!
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