Scottish leader demands new independence vote before Brexit

By Reuters   March 13, 2017 | 05:23 pm PT
Scottish leader demands new independence vote before Brexit
Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon, addresses the party's annual conference in Glasgow, Scotland October 15, 2016. Photo by Reuters Cheyne
And Northern Ireland's largest Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein wants vote on N.Ireland leaving UK 'as soon as possible.'

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Monday demanded a new independence referendum in late 2018 or early 2019, once the terms of the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union have become clearer.

An independence vote that could rip apart the world's fifth largest economy just months before Brexit raises the stakes for Prime Minister Theresa May as she prepares to trigger two years of formal Brexit talks.

"If Scotland is to have a real choice - when the terms of Brexit are known but before it is too late to choose our own course - then that choice must be offered between the autumn of next year, 2018, and the spring of 2019," Sturgeon told reporters in Edinburgh.

In the June 23 Brexit referendum, the UK-wide vote was 51.9 - 48.1 percent to leave the EU. Voters in England and Wales chose to leave while in Scotland and Northern Ireland they voted to stay, and since then the strains on the United Kingdom have deepened.

Sturgeon, who heads Edinburgh's pro-independence devolved government, said she would next week seek the approval of the Scottish Parliament to discuss with the UK government the details enabling a second referendum to take place.

The detailed arrangements for a referendum - including its timing - should be decided by Scotland's parliament, she said.

Scots rejected independence by 55-45 percent in a referendum in September 2014, but support for Sturgeon's Scottish National Party has surged since then.

It is ultimately the UK parliament in Westminster - where May commands a majority - which decides whether Scotland can hold a second referendum.

But if she refused to approve such a vote she could provoke a constitutional crisis and stoke discord in Scotland.

While Sturgeon said the "door was still open" to talking to London, she added she was not expecting a change of tack over Brexit by May's government, which says it will prioritize immigration controls over continued preferential access to the European single market.

"I cannot pretend that a compromise looks remotely likely given the hardline response so far," she said.


Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon listens as Michael Russell (MSP) Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland's Place in Europe speaks during the Scottish Parliament debate on the triggering of article 50 in the main Photo by Reuters/Russell Cheyne/File Photo

'Tunnel vision'

May has not publicly said whether she would try to block a Scottish attempt to hold a second referendum, but has accused Sturgeon's Scottish National Party of sacrificing Scotland's interests through its "obsession" with securing independence.

"The tunnel vision that SNP has shown today is deeply regrettable," May said.

"Instead of playing politics with the future of our country, the Scottish government should focus on delivering good government and public services for the people of Scotland. Politics is not a game."

May's spokesman said the evidence showed that the majority of people in Scotland did not want a second independence referendum, which he said would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty.

Sturgeon has said she wants Scotland to have its own deal as part of the United Kingdom's Brexit agreement, to keep its preferential access to the single market.

But on Monday she said her efforts had hit a "brick wall of intransigence" in London and that she feared a bad deal or even no proper deal for the UK to leave the EU.

"I will now take the steps necessary to make sure that Scotland will have a choice at the end of this process," she said.

"A choice of whether to follow the UK to a hard Brexit - or to become an independent country, able to secure a real partnership of equals with the rest of the UK and our own relationship with Europe."

An independent Scotland born after a messy secession battle with London would have to apply for EU membership after the United Kingdom left, according to diplomats and EU officials.

Sterling gained broadly against major currencies after Sturgeon's announcement.

Recent opinion polls have shown support for independence rising since May announced Britain would quit the single market. A poll last week saw a 50-50 split.

Asked if she believed she could win a second independence vote, Sturgeon replied: "Yes I do. Absolutely, I believe that."


Irish and European Union flags are pictured outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 23, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Vote on N.Ireland leaving UK

Hours after Sturgeon spoke, Northern Ireland's largest Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein said it wanted a referendum on splitting from the United Kingdom "as soon as possible".

"Brexit will be a disaster for the economy, and a disaster for the people of Ireland," Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill told reporters in Belfast. "A referendum on Irish unity has to happen as soon as possible."

Sinn Fein has been regularly calling for a vote for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and unite with the Republic of Ireland since Britain voted to leave the European Union last June while most voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain.

Under a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of sectarian violence in the province, the British government can call a referendum if it appears likely a majority of those voting would seek to form part of a united Ireland.

But Northern Ireland's Secretary of State James Brokenshire said in July last year that he did not believe the conditions for calling a referendum had been met.

Opinion polls in the past have shown a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom - in an IPSOS-MORI poll in September, only 22 percent of 1,000 voters questioned said they would support a united Ireland while 63 percent said they would prefer to remain part of the UK.

However, there has been no poll in recent months and Sinn Fein saw a surge in its support at assembly elections a week ago.

Fifty-six percent of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union in June last year, but 52 percent of the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave.

The British government "are continuing to refuse to listen to the majority view and they are refusing to honor their commitments and agreements," O'Neill said.

O'Neill's comments come as British Prime Minister Theresa May is poised to launch the Brexit process, which is expected to have major implications for the economy of Northern Ireland which has close trade links to the Irish Republic, an EU member. 

Related news:

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> Scotland welcome to join EU, Merkel ally says

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