No-one on either side of the referendum debate voted for the destabilisation of the United Kingdom but undoubtedly a Leave vote has made the prospect riskier.
Voters were repeatedly told by Leave campaigners that the UK would not be affected by Britain leaving the EU. Michael Gove stated that “if we vote to Leave, then I think the Union will be stronger” and the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, said she believed that “the land border with Ireland can remain as free-flowing after a Brexit vote as it is today.”
We believe it is critical that the Government places the constitutional stability of the UK at the forefront of its negotiating stance. Nothing should be done which threatens the integrity of the UK or undermines the Good Friday Agreement.
Minimising the damage to Scotland’s interests
The Scottish people will determine Scotland’s future, as they did in the 2014 referendum. They also voted to Remain in the EU in 2016. Nothing should be done in the negotiations that leads the Scottish people to feel their future cannot be within the United Kingdom because of the scale of the disadvantages imposed by leaving the EU.
The challenge facing the UK is to negotiate a settlement that minimises the economic cost of leaving for all nations and regions of the UK and to ensure the full involvement of the Scottish Government and other Devolved Administrations in negotiations.
Avoiding the Return of Controls at the Irish Border
The possible re-emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland (NI) and the Republic of Ireland (ROI) could destabilise the United Kingdom. One of the Leave campaigners’ key arguments was the need to “take back control of our borders”, but the NI-ROI border is the UK’s only land border and it will soon exist between the EU and a non-Member State.
The border exists legally but for practical purposes it has all but disappeared. The commitments made since the referendum to maintain current arrangements are welcome, since anything that strengthens a sense of separation between North and South has the potential to undermine progress that has been made. However, it seems inevitable that some form of new border checks will be implemented due to the Government’s decisions to end free movement of people and to withdraw entirely from the Customs Union. The Government has provided no detail whatsoever about new arrangements between Northern Ireland and Ireland and have admitted that their stance on the Customs Union and freedom of movement of people will risk creating ‘friction’.
The risk is an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic becoming a gateway for what would then be illegal immigration from the EU into the UK, and a way for goods entering the EU from the UK to evade customs controls. Therefore, the Government’s best outcome appears to be minimising friction, not eradicating it as at present.
Rejecting joint sovereignty proposals for Gibraltar
Given its overwhelming vote to Remain within the EU, Gibraltar’s Constitution, its self-government and right of self-determination must remain protected as must its freely determined choice to remain British.
The outcome of the referendum runs contrary to the economic model which Gibraltar has followed and which has made it economically self-sufficient. Benefits from EU funding and those that arise from the UK’s place within the Single Market must be preserved. There must be a level playing field on which to prosper.
Only the Gibraltarian people will determine Gibraltar’s future, as they did in the 2002 referendum. Nothing should be done in the negotiations that leads the Gibraltarian people to be placed under political and economic pressures, or which could make the people of Gibraltar feel their future cannot be fully and viably retained with the United Kingdom because of the scale of the disadvantages from leaving the EU. Spain’s offers of joint sovereignty are unacceptable and should be fully and formally rejected by the UK, as they have been by the Gibraltarians.
Gibraltar should be fully involved in and represented at all negotiations which the UK carries out with the EU, to ensure its position within the EU is fully protected.
Involving the whole UK
The Government promised a “UK-wide” approach to Brexit. This has not happened. The Government whipped against amendments that would have made it mandatory to gain the consent of Devolved Administrations and has ignored the policies of the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Government, both of which stated that the UK should be in the Single Market. This is deeply regrettable and divisive.
The Joint Ministerial Committee is not strong enough. Going forward, the Government must commit to full and ongoing consultation with the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as all UK Local Authorities and the Greater London Authority. Their policy positions must be taken in to consideration and compromises found between all sides if the Government are to honour their original warm words. Overseas Territories must also be closely involved where they have a direct interest.