Party Chair: Northern Ireland is in an Unbelievably Special Position
It is a sign of the insularity of the Scottish political commentariat and the inadequacy of the mainstream media, that there has been hardly a solitary word about what the new Northern Ireland deal really means for Scotland.
And it signals a great deal. It is a narrative which could effectively end the scare stories about hard borders facing an independent Scotland with our main markets south of the border.
Over the past two years, there has been a vigorous debate in Ireland about the economic impact of the previous Protocol. A number of economists have argued that Northern Ireland, for the first time since the brief honeymoon following the Good Friday Agreement, is economically outperforming the rest of the UK.
They contend that the inconvenience of the protocol regulations has been overpowered by the surge in trade with the 500 million European single marketplace. Others have argued that the evidence is, as yet, ambiguous and the admitted hike in inward investment and production is not fully squared with the Gross Domestic Product statistics.
Both sides of economists miss the point. The fact that Northern Ireland’s relative growth position is even a matter of discussion and debate, means that the future direction of economic traffic can only go one way. There is a rule in economics which I describe as “the immediacy of downside risk”. What it means is that negatives happen quickly but economic positives often take time to emerge.
Thus the economic downside of even a relatively minor disruption to the flow of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be immediate, while the boom in single market trade takes time to gather momentum. Thus, if in the short term, the overall impact is debatable, over the medium term the growth in trade would predominate.
Now Ursula von der Leyen and Sunak have negotiated the “Windsor Agreement” which settles the argument once and for all. The new “green lanes” will reduce barriers to trade between the North of Ireland and Britain to the bare minimum. Meanwhile, the tilt to the single market will continue to accelerate to the great benefit of the people of the Province. Even domestic pets are fast-tracked in the new settlement!
Northern Ireland will now finally get what that complete chancer Boris Johnson once promised - the “best of both worlds”. Rishi Sunak now describes this as “an unbelievably special position”.
So what does all of this mean for Scotland? Most of it is bad news in immediate competitive terms. Any productive business faced with the choice of locating in the west of Scotland or Northern Ireland will have only one sensible choice and it will not be Scotland. In compensation, if the Scottish Government ever does persuade the Greens to let them build another road anytime, anywhere, then creating a proper, modern southwest of Scotland “Euro-Route” to Cairnryan would make a great deal of economic sense.
However, the good news comes in terms of the independence debate and that makes the insularity of Scots politicians all the more frustrating. The position of Northern Ireland post-deal is a proxy for what the position of an EFTA-aligned independent Scotland will be or indeed could be now if the Scottish Government had not been asleep at the European wheel.
No restrictions on people, preferential terms with the rest of the UK market, and full access to the single market would be a dynamic combination for an independent Scotland.
It is the position that even a devolved Scotland might have been in if the SNP had used its Westminster parliamentary influence over the years since the EU referendum to advance Scotland's cause, instead of the futile attempt to instruct the English to “Stop Brexit”. Scotland is paying very dearly for that complete vacuum of strategic political vision in the Sturgeon/Blackford period. These are the seven years when the locusts ate.
However, we are where we are and have to look forward from here. No more should Scottish nationalists fear the “border question”. The protocol deal in Northern Ireland demonstrates that Scotland can have the “best of both worlds”. All we need is the courage to insist on the political change which will enable the economic transformation towards “an unbelievably special position.”
It is with great regret that I make this article my sign-off, but I have been asked by the Editor to do so, as indeed is her right. It is with even more regret that there will be no ALBA voice to take my place in these columns. This newspaper, born of enthusiasm in combatting the unionist strangulation of the Scottish mainstream media to give heart to the independence movement, now gives every impression to have sadly become predominantly a news sheet for a single party.
So be it, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it has been an enormous privilege writing for you over these last eight tumultuous years.
(This article was first published in The National on March 1st 2023)