In the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016, Scotland seemed to be on the brink of independence.

Scots rejected Brexit by an overwhelming 24 point margin, prompting Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon – the head of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh – to start preparing the ground for a fresh referendum on separation from the UK.

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2017, it seemed, should have killed the campaign for Scottish independence stone dead.

At the UK general election in June, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) lost a third of its Westminster seats, forcing SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to “reset” her plans for a second independence referendum. Then, in August, new analysis showed that an independent Scotland would face a projected budget deficit of 8.3 per cent – the largest of any EU state. And on top of that, major splits have begun to emerge within the ‘Yes’ base, as younger, more radical activists sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have clashed with older, more conservative nationalists loyal to the SNP. 

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In the strange and obscure world of Scottish constitutional politics, something can be utterly inevitable – until it suddenly isn’t. For most of the past ten years, and certainly for the past two, a widespread consensus has existed in Scotland regarding the inevitability of independence. That consensus has been based on the almost total dominance of Scotland’s electoral landscape by the Scottish National Party (SNP). Last month, the landscape changed.

At the UK’s snap general election on 8 June, the SNP shed 21 of its 56 Westminster seats and saw its share of the vote slump by 13 points. Angus Robertson, the party’s chief strategist, and Alex Salmond, its former leader, both lost their once rock-solid constituencies in the rural north-east. Towering nationalist majorities across Glasgow and the central belt crumbled. Even the Liberal Democrats enjoyed a modest Caledonian revival, adding three new Scottish MPs, in Edinburgh, Dunbartonshire, and Caithness, to their previous, solitary total of one.

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Not that long ago, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon was the most exciting social democrat in European politics.

She took charge of the SNP – and with it an absolute majority at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature – in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The SNP lost that referendum, but left-leaning Scots, many of them former Labour voters, flocked to her side.

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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.

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