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Opinion

Scotland and Northern Ireland hold the cards for the UK’s future

Scotland will soon have a new first minister. Joe Biden is on his way to Stormont. So what do these events mean for the future of the Union?

It used to be standard. Certain broadcasts for TV shows would be available everywhere, except for viewers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. REAL TV wasn’t for uppity Celts! People up in the extremities didn’t need such programmes, and instead were fed local fare. Armando Iannucci created a brilliant sketch about this called Except For Viewers in Scotland. In it, he went to heaven, a multichannel paradise, where things that had been broadcast elsewhere to everyone except for viewers in Scotland could now be watched, like the first-ever live interview with an alien that had been replaced in Scotland by a Paul Coia quiz show about hills. 

Something similar is happening now, except for voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But this time they’re the ones holding the remotes. Two things are moving along that could impact on the future of the UK in ways that are either being ignored or quietly dismissed beyond their borders. 

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The first is the election of a new leader of the SNP. Unless you’re a viewer in Scotland you may not be aware that three people are in the running to replace Nicola Sturgeon, the current SNP chief and First Minister. She resigned, taking everyone by surprise, several weeks ago. One of the candidates will be announced the victor on March 27, and whoever that is it will impact where the independence movement sits, and therefore the future of the UK.  

The three are very different. Humza Yousaf, the current health minister, is the continuity candidate, from the social democratic wing of the party, keen to call a snap election if he wins, putting the issue of independence front and centre again. His weak record as health minister is casting a shadow. His closest rival is Kate Forbes, the finance minister, fiscally conservative, felt to have done a good job in her finance brief, but due to being a member of the Free Church of Scotland (wee frees) holds less than progressive personal views on equal marriage and women’s right to choose, issues that have dogged her campaign and caused concerns. Ash Regan, the final of the trio, is woolly on plans and not considered a likely winner. 

A poll for YouGov last week put support for a Yes vote in another independence referendum at 39 per cent, something of a dip. And while this may be received as a growing tolerance for the Union, don’t count on it. A perceived drop in backing may embolden Westminster enough to grant Scotland another indy ref because they are confident of a win and therefore an end to the matter for decades. But it should be remembered how much ground was made up in the Yes camp in 2014. And that there are always a high percentage of don’t knows in these polls, who could be convinced by a good argument. If Yousaf wins, the hare is running. 

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In Northern Ireland, they’re braced for a visit by President Biden, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10. Clearly, he’ll be bringing pressure to bear to make sure that Rishi Sunak’s Windsor framework is agreed and that Stormont gets up and running (the population is VERY annoyed at how everyday life is grinding to a halt as the chamber remains shut). Having stood in a wet Belfast city centre in late November 1995 to see Bill Clinton speak, a visit that help usher in the changed landscape that led to the GFA, I can tell you that the power of a US presidential visit to Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. And if it manages to get Stormont up, with the historic moment of a Sinn Fein first minister, how that ripples out for a potential border poll on Irish unity is yet to be fully understood. 

Viewers in Scotland and Northern Ireland are watching closely. The rest of the UK needs to stay tuned. 

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Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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