I am late writing this column since political developments continue to come fast and furious here in Westminster and the wider UK. Following last week’s Budget today, as I write, the Article 50 debate continues in the House of Commons with the Government attempting to overturn the amendments passed in the House of Lords. I suspect that by the time you read these words the legislation will have been passed and Article 50 triggered by the Prime Minister. This will, whatever your view of Brexit, be a momentous and historical moment. As if that’s not enough we have also had the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announce that she will seek to pass the relevant legislation in order to facilitate a new referendum on independence for Scotland. It’s hardly a surprising development but with the opinion polls at 50:50 compared to 70:30 against independence when Alex Salmond called a referendum back in 2012 nothing can be taken for granted.
I was in Edinburgh last Thursday and Friday at a British/Irish Council meeting which brings together the devolved Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK Government and the Irish Government. In addition the Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man are also represented. It was a great honour to represent the UK Government at such a meeting especially since the topic for discussion is the work being done to protect and support the other languages of the British Isles. It’s not often that a Welsh speaker can sit in a meeting where the Welsh language is the giant in the room rather than the small neighbour of the world conquering English language!
However, what I found concerning was my discussions with representatives from Northern Ireland and Scotland. With the former there is a growing feeling that the continuation of the peace established by the Good Friday Agreement appears to be seriously at stake whilst my conversations with the Scots were similar to those I am used to having with Irish citizens. We have a huge amount in common with citizens of the Irish Republic, as we do Scotland. Similar TV programmes, popular music and in many ways a shared literature where the English language has often benefited significantly from the contribution of the Irish, the Scots and of course the Welsh! But, and it’s a real but, read their papers, listen to talk shows and watch the news and it’s clearly another country. My brief visit to Edinburgh left me somewhat despondent because I felt the same way as I do when I leave Dublin. For me Dublin is somewhere which is recognisable but very different. That is fine in the context of the capital of an independent country but it should be a warning when visiting a city which is a crucial part of the UK. The sense of nationhood in Edinburgh is palpable. For a long time it has been satisfied within the UK. Even in 2014 a majority saw themselves as British and Scottish. Is that changing though? My gut feeling is yes and that should be a cause for regret to all of us.