The political status in the United Kingdom
Unrest in West Belfast, in Northern Ireland, is threatening to undermine the already fragile political allegiance in Northern Ireland and has called into question the state of the wider United Kingdom in the build up to important regional elections. Brexit-induced tensions have led to an outburst of loyalist militant confrontations with riot police. The protests have been widely reported to be a direct consequence of growing tension arising after the introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol implemented as a part of the post-Brexit trade agreement. Further to the growing tension, many have accredited the recent funeral of former IRA chief Bobby Storey as the spark of the violence after the contentious decision of Northern Irish authorities to not prosecute Sinn Feinn politicians who attended. The combination of the two issues and a growing fear for Northern Ireland’s connection to the rest of the UK after the introduction of the Irish Sea border have created a level of unease for unionist politicians and loyalist groups.
With the integrity of the union facing a severe setback in Northern Ireland, polling in Scotland ahead of the forthcoming devolved elections are stoking further separatist hopes. With First Minister Nicola Sturgeon searching for a mandate for a second independence referendum, a majority win for the Scottish National Party (SNP) could prove very damaging for relations within the Union. As it stands, polls indicate a significant victory for the SNP with a predicted 64 seats. With just one more seat required for a majority, the SNP may be hoping for the newly created pro-independence Alba Party to secure some seats to strengthen the cause. Former First Minister Alex Salmond, creator of the Alba Party will not be too hopeful after recent polls show a surprising lack of uptake in the new party who may struggle to win many, if any, seats.
Fear of a Welsh independence call, although seemingly much less imminent, will also be playing on the minds of the Unionists following a reported rise in support for independence amongst young people in Wales. Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price placed an independence referendum at the heart of the Plaid manifesto for the upcoming election, though Price has ruled out interest in becoming a junior partner in any coalition, and with not having the support to win a majority, the chance of a Welsh independence referendum seem very unlikely. The upcoming election has been predicted to be the closest since devolution, with the Labour and Conservative parties split by just a few percent in recent polling with around 33 and 30 percent respectively. With Plaid currently predicted to win around 23%, the three-way race leaves little chance for any outright majority.
The early predictions of a fall in support for the Labour party in Wales has only highlighted the reinvigorated support for the Conservative party across the whole of the UK. Recent polling has indicated a nine-point lead over Labour, their highest since last May, with the success of the vaccine strategy bringing the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic to its highest approval rating yet. With support and polling at its highest for 20 years, and the next election not scheduled until 2024, it would not be a surprise if the government moved the election forward to capitalise on their lead following a successful vaccination programme and roadmap out of lockdown.