This clearly represents a significant set back for supporters of independence for Scotland and the casual observer may arrive at the lazy conclusion that the matter is decided for the foreseeable future.
I think this is somewhat premature. The judgement of the Supreme Court contains difficulties for the U.K. Parliament and the Government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the sense that the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707 is clearly not one of a voluntary nature.
By implying this, the judgement may represent something of a red rag to the bull for many pro-independence Scots. It will certainly give the SNP/Green Government in Edinburgh a rather large stick to beat whichever British Government happens to be in power over the next few years.
In any event, there are legal precedents for dissolution of the union of nations within the framework of the British and Irish State (as I have previously argued in The Long and Winding Irish Road).
It should not be forgotten that 26 Irish counties (now the sovereign state of the Republic of Ireland) are obviously no longer in union with the United Kingdom. In fact, the original Acts of Parliament which led to the Union of Great Britain and Ireland stated:
This piece of legislation (and it’s Westminster counterpart) contained the (very) ambitious statement that Great Britain and Ireland were to be united for ever. The ancient Greeks had a word for this type of mindset – hubris. This word means an excess of pride or over confidence.
Unfortunately, for the parliamentary draftsmen of both pieces of legislation, they could not possibly foresee that this permanent union would be seriously undermined by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. I shouldn’t have to say this, but 119 years is self evidently not aunion for ever.
It is also worth highlighting that the remaining six counties of the North of Ireland are still part of the political framework of the United Kingdom, but it is not a racing certainty that this will continue. The rise of Sinn Fein as the largest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly has raised huge question marks about the constitutional status of the six counties. I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination to say that the future of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland looks very uncertain.
Even the Soviet Union (the USSR) explicitly gave its constituent Republics the right to secede in its 1977 Constitution (a right which had existed in previous versions). This right, of course, was more apparent than real as long as the Cold War endured. With the fall of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the political space was created for the Soviet Republics to chart their own courses. Admittedly, this hasn’t always been plain sailing as the current war in Ukraine and other conflicts in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia amply demonstrate).
Interestingly, when the Brexit Referendum of 23 June 2016 produced a narrow majority in favour of the U.K. leaving the European Union, there was no clear constitutional process for a member state to secede. Yet, on 31 January 2020, the U.K. became a former EU State.
This really leads me to the conclusion of this very short article: independence for Scotland is a political question rather than a legal question. The Supreme Court has answered a relatively easy question in the sense that the architecture of the Scotland Act 1998 does not currently permit the Scottish Parliament to hold a binding or non-binding referendum. As with the Irish Question over a century ago, permanent unions between countries or political units tend to be anything but.
One door closes and another opens …
The link to my previous article, The Long and Irish Winding Road can be found below:
Could supporters of independence for Scotland succeed in their objective without the need to hold a second independence referendum or IndyRef2? Let me put it another way: could Scottish independence be secured without the need for the U.K. Government and Parliament to grant a Section 30 order under the Scotland Act 1998?
Joanna Cherry, a leading Scottish National Party MP and QC certainly seems to think so and, as a highly competent member of the Scottish Bar, she has a legal precedent to hand.
The precedent in question is the Anglo-Irish Treaty of which led to the creation of the 26 County Irish Free State and the 6 County State of Northern Ireland. Coincidentally, it was actually the 99th anniversary of the Treaty being ratified by the Irish Parliament on 7 January 1922.
A link to an article in The Scotsman about Joanna Cherry’s views on the Anglo-Irish Treaty can be found below:
As a precedent, the Treaty is not, however, entirely unproblematic: it is an error to believe that a truly, independent Irish Republic was created in 1922 as a result of the Treaty. It was, in fact, not until 1949 that Éamon de Valera, Prime Minister (Taoiseach) of the Irish Free State felt sufficiently confident to break decisively with the United Kingdom. By this point, Britain had lost its position to the United States of America as the leading global power and former British Imperial possessions, such as the Indian Empire (modern day Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), had been granted independence.
More controversially, the Treaty was the direct result of Irish Republicans pursuing an armed struggle against the United Kingdom between 1919 and 1921 (the War of Independence) which had forced the British to come to the negotiating table. Although, it has to be conceded that, many members of the United Nations have gained their independence fully or partially as a result of armed struggles.
Arguably, in 1918-19, the United Kingdom was still the pre-eminent global power – it had emerged as a victor in the First World War and with an enlarged Empire.
That said, this situation hid considerable political and economic weaknesses on the part of the British; and Republican commanders, like Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, recognised this and were determined to take full advantage in order to further Irish independence. The Anglo-Irish Treaty from the British perspective was, therefore, a considerable concession to Irish nationalism.
Where Collins and de Valera parted company was in their reading of where the Treaty might eventually lead in the immediate aftermath of the War of Independence. The Pro-Treaty Republicans (led by Collins) were convinced that this was the best outcome that they could hope to achieve in the current circumstances whereas the Anti-Treaty Republicans (led by de Valera) felt that one more push would secure the Irish Republic for which they yearned.
Michael Collins, de Valera’s comrade and later bitter enemy, made a pragmatic choice to back the Treaty (he had, after all, put his signature to the document).
Collins’ principal argument was that, although the Treaty fell far short of Republican demands, it provided the space to obtain greater freedom for Ireland. His beliefs would ultimately cost him his life, but his Pro-Treaty stance would prevail and would define the Island of Ireland politically and geographically for the next 100 years (the Island of Ireland is still split to this very day).
De Valera and his supporters were outraged because the Treaty represented a humiliation and a betrayal of their purist nationalist vision of a united Republic of Ireland comprising all 32 Counties.
In modern constitutional terms, Collins would be regarded as a gradualist. As a matter of political necessity, de Valera too would be forced to adopt a gradualist approach in his quest for the Holy Grail of Irish independence, but this would only come about following a crushing military defeat of the Anti-Treaty camp at the hands of Free State Forces.
The repentant revolutionary
In 1926, de Valera made a significant decision by abandoning the armed struggle by entering Irish constitutional politics when he established Fianna Fáil. Until that time, de Valera and his Republican supporters had followed a policy of absentionism whereby they refused to take seats in the Irish Parliament. For the nearly the next quarter of a century, de Valera and Fianna Fáil would work towards the creation of an Irish Republic using the constitutional apparatus of the Free State.
This dramatic change of strategy was due, in a large part, to de Valera’s defeat in the Irish Civil War (1922-23) where opposing wings of the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein had split and quarrelled (violently) in their response to the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
A constitutional anomaly?
According to the eminent Irish historian, Tim Pat Coogan*, the Irish Free State was something of a constitutional anomaly in the sense that it had an imprecise legal status when compared to the other self-governing Dominions of the British Empire such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
According to David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and one of the signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the term ‘Dominion’ was “something that has never been defined by Act of Parliament, even in this country, and yet it works perfectly.” (Mansergh, 1934**)
The Irish people would not share Lloyd George’s confident assertion: they knew what the Free State was not i.e. the free and independent Irish Republic for which many of them had fought. Lloyd George and his British co-signatory, Winston Churchill, were fiercely opposed to the creation of anything resembling an Irish Republic.
In any event, whatever its precise legal status, the creation of the Irish State had come about in profoundly different (not to say stark) circumstances from the other Dominions of the British Empire. These other Dominions had come into existence by way of an evolutionary process marked by incremental change. There can be no doubt that the Irish Free State had been created as a result of a violent revolutionary struggle.
The territory of the Free State would initially comprise all 32 Irish Counties, but the 6 Northern Counties with their Protestant and Unionist majorities speedily exercised their right to secede from the new State. The partition of the Island of Ireland, of course, continues to this very day.
Equally distasteful to Republican sentiments was the fact that King George V and his successors would continue to be King in Ireland (the Irish Head of State). Still more galling for Irish Republicans, those elected members of Dáil Éireann (the lower House of the Irish Parliament) and Seanad Éireann (the upper House of Parliament) would have to take a personal oath of allegiance to George V and his successors:
The oath to be taken by members of the Oireachtas [Irish National Parliament] shall be in the following form:—
I _______________ do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established, and that I will be faithful to H. M. King George V., his heirs and successors by law in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Such oath shall be taken and subscribed by every member of the Oireachtas before taking his seat therein before the Representative of the Crown or some other person authorised by him.
The King and his successors would be represented at official functions by a Governor General. It is not an understatement to say that the British Crown was an anathema to Irish Republicans – irrespective of their views on the Treaty.
There would also be a continuing British military presence on Irish Free State territory, namely, the 3 naval bases of Fort Dunree (County Donegal) and Bere and Spike Islands (County Cork). The Free State Government would eventually gain control of these bases in 1938 – a fact which made Winston Churchill, then a backbench Conservative MP, apoplectic. He would argue, not without justification, that these bases would be vitally important for Britain in the event of any future hostilities with Nazi Germany.
All of the above represented significant obstacles to the creation of an independent Irish State and it is often now forgotten that it was the genius of de Valera who used the constitutional architecture of the Treaty to undermine British influence in the 26 Southern Irish Counties.
In 1922, the prospects of the creation of an Irish Republic were by no means certain. The Irish Free State, created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty, was undoubtedly a constitutional anomaly.
Éamon de Valera was forced to make the long journey from revolutionary firebrand to establishment politician. This was due, in a large part, to his defeat in the Irish Civil War (1922-23) where opposing wings of the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein had split and quarrelled (violently) in their response to the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
It would take considerable skill and patience on the part of de Valera and his supporters in Fianna Fáil to achieve the goal of an Irish Republic. It should be recalled that it was only in 1949 that an Irish Republic (minus the 6 Northern Counties) came into existence.
These are factors which supporters of Scottish Independence who are attracted to Joanna Cherry’s argument would be well advised to study in detail. Cherry advances an interesting precedent, but it is not without its problems. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 does not provide a straight road to Scottish independence. There were many twists and turns in this road before a sovereign Irish Republic emerged and, even, then this was a lesser entity due to the decision by the Northern Six Counties to remain part of the U.K.
The Irish Civil War by Tim Pat Coogan and George Morrison (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998)
The Irish Free State: Its Government and its Politics by Nicholas Mansergh (George Allen & Unwin, 1934). Available at: