Could Brexit mean the break-up of the UK?

This is a serious question prompted by solid evidence and analysis, not part of a Remainer ‘project fear’. 

The 310 mile border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, with its 275 crossing points, is a pivotal issue in the Brexit negotiations and every round of the talks has floundered because no way of resolving it has been agreed.

This border is the only land border between the UK and the EU.  When we leave the EU it should realistically be controlled for the collection of tariffs and to prevent smuggling. None of the Governments involved want a hard border but the only way to avoid one is for there to be regulatory convergence between north and south and for the north to remain in the EU customs union. That is totally unacceptable to both the UK Government and the DUP, which is threatening to abandon its support for the Conservative Government if the latter were tempted to concede on that issue.

Underlying this knotty issue is a fear that a hard border would reignite the troubles that plagued Ireland until the Good Friday agreement in 1998, which is why none of the negotiating parties want a hard border. Nevertheless, a hard Brexit inevitably means a hard border and it seems that those who want a hard Brexit are indifferent to the consequences for Northern Ireland. In a debate on the Agriculture Bill on 10th October, John Redwood MP said “Who in this Government does speak for England? I come into the Chamber and hear debates about the Scottish problem and the Irish border, but we must not forget England, our home base for most of us on this side of the House.”

That mind-set is understood in the other constituent parts of the UK. If Northern Ireland were to be treated as a special case, Scotland, which voted 62% to 38% to remain in the EU, would demand to be treated in the same way. Recent polls indicated that 52% in Scotland would back independence from the UK if there is a hard Brexit and an equivalent poll in Northern Ireland returned the same result. Irish republicans welcome this because they hope it would lead eventually to Irish reunification. The latest poll in Wales found only 19% supporting independence.

So there are grounds for thinking that Brexit could lead to the break-up of the UK. The question is how typical is the ‘little England’ mind-set amongst the pro-Brexit Tories?  Boris Johnson trivialised the Irish border issue, likening it to the border between Islington and Camden and Westminster. David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary who resigned in July, advocates both a hard Brexit and the creation of an English Parliament. The European Research Group, led by Jacob Rees Mogg, was more subtle. They appeared to accept regulatory convergence and suggested that technology could be used to avoid a hard border but they also want the UK to develop a fully independent trade policy that could end regulatory convergence sooner or later.

The question we all have to face is whether the future of the UK was a consideration when we voted in the 2016 Referendum? This was not given a high profile by either side in their campaigns but it is a real issue now and not one we can afford to duck. Where in our priorities are leaving the European Union and preserving the United Kingdom? Some see that question as justifying a second referendum whilst others are so committed to Brexit that they are prepared to risk the break-up of the UK to achieve that goal.

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