Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the Seanad yesterday was the first any foreign leader has given to the upper chamber of the Irish parliament. The Seanad is tucked away in a far corner of Leinster House, a complex of austere 18th century buildings on Kildare Street, just off St. Stephen’s Green, in central Dublin. Its antiquated press gallery can accommodate a grand total nine reporters, so, having travelled down from Belfast, I decamped to a small annex room with a wall-mounted TV and a failing internet connection.
The speech itself didn’t generate much advance coverage in the Irish media. The Irish Times dedicated a few short paragraphs on page five to Sturgeon’s meeting on Monday with Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs. They should have paid more attention.
Sturgeon is functional speaker, not a flashy one. Unlike Alex Salmond, she doesn’t improvise in formal settings, but her arguments are always rigorously constructed and explained.
For the most part, the address wasn’t ground-breaking. As expected, the first minister reaffirmed her commitment to securing Scotland’s place in the European single market, even if it means staging a second independence referendum. She said Scotland and Ireland were “living examples” of what “small, open, outward-looking” countries could achieve, and – citing former Irish president Mary Robinson – she attributed the revival of traditional Irish culture to Ireland’s membership of the EU.
Her remarks only really began to gather pace towards the end, when she turned to the roots causes of Brexit. “There seems little doubt,” she said, “that Brexit was a product of inequality, of disillusionment with the established order; of a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement … If people don’t believe and feel they are benefiting from the status quo, we can’t be surprised if they choose not to vote for the status quo.”
This statement carries radical implications. If Sturgeon is worried that Scotland and Ireland might be susceptible to the kind of populist rightwing surge that has swept the US and parts of Europe, including England, recently, isn’t she is tacitly acknowledging that her own brand of liberal managerialism has reached its limit? If a “fair society” is the essential basis of an “open economy”, then tinkering at the edges of the UK welfare system – and stripping back what exists of the Irish one – will surely only accelerate the crisis of the “established order.” Above all, if Sturgeon’s analysis is correct, then the SNP will soon have to decide if it wants to be part of that order, or if it represents an insurgent challenge to it.
After Sturgeon finished speaking, one senator after another rose to declare their support for Scottish independence. Fianna Fáil’s Catharine Ardagh told Sturgeon that “Scotland’s day will come.” Frances Black, an independent, wished Sturgeon “all the best in fighting for independence for your country.” And Irish Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said he believed the break-up of Britain was now “inevitable.”
The Seanad’s enthusiastic reaction to Sturgeon’s speech reflects a shift in Irish attitudes towards Scottish independence since the European referendum.
Leinster House used to view Scotland as a potential economic competitor. Now it sees Scotland as a diplomatic ally; a liberal, pro-European counterweight to an English political class that has, in the words of one Irish journalist, “gone mad.” Any concerns the Irish might have had about Edinburgh poaching finance jobs from London – jobs that might otherwise have gone to Dublin – have been replaced by a more immediate fear: that of a second, Brexit-induced recession ruining Ireland’s tentative post-crash recovery.
Ireland’s chief goal is to keep its borders with Britain as open as possible. Its emerging partnership with Scotland is a response to the asymmetric shock of the Brexit vote, which, as Sturgeon correctly stated, amounts to “the greatest foreign policy challenge Ireland has faced since it joined the EU.” Against that backdrop, Scotland’s separation from England is at best a secondary concern for the Irish political class.
However, it’s worth noting that Sturgeon’s positive reception in the Seanad sits awkwardly with the SNP’s approach to Ireland, which – mirroring a broader Scottish ambivalence – has fluctuated over the years.
In the 1970s, at the height of the Troubles, the party vigorously discouraged comparisons between Scottish and Irish nationalism. It wanted to separate its own “democratic, constitutional” politics from what it saw as the fascist violence of the IRA.
By the 1990s, that had changed. Alex Salmond was an advocate of the Celtic Tiger. He promoted Ireland’s mix of low corporate taxes and light-touch business “dynamism” as a model of success for small independent countries in the global economy. Twenty years on, Sturgeon has shifted position again, ditching Salmond’s Arc of Prosperity in favour of a Celtic alliance aimed at countering the threat of Tory-imposed hard Brexit.
Nonetheless, at the official Irish level at least, Sturgeon is obviously well liked, and Ireland as a whole has never been more interested in or better informed about Scottish affairs.
Ostensibly, the visit – which was spearheaded by John Webster, who leads the Scottish ‘“investment and innovation hub” at the British embassy in Dublin – was aimed at boosting Scotland’s business presence in the Republic. Scottish exports to Ireland are worth upward of £1bn annually and support around 6000 jobs. The creation of the hub, in November 2015, signalled a deepening of formal ties; a recognition that the Scots-Irish relationship has moved beyond the old cultural flash-points of sectarianism and emigration and onto a more modern pragmatic and commercial footing.
But there was an underlying domestic political agenda at work, too. The trip was a challenge to the limits of devolution. On a string of major foreign controversies, from the war in Syria to the future of the EU, the SNP has consistently positioned itself in opposition to Westminster. For nationalists, the last two days have reinforced the sense that Holyrood is an independent, or at least semi-autonomous, actor on the global stage. And without alienating Theresa May, Dublin seems quite happy to act as a platform for Scotland’s newfound international assertiveness.