U.K. faces its own breakup possibilities

Paul Kelbie
Associated Press

Edinburgh, Scotland — The United Kingdom’s stunning vote to depart the European Union could end in the breakup of the U.K. itself.

While majorities of voters in England and Wales backed the campaign to leave the 28-nation bloc, the U.K.’s two other regions of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay. Hot on the heels of Friday’s results, nationalist leaders in both countries vowed to leave the U.K. if that is the required price to keep their homelands fully connected to Europe.

Scotland, where nationalists already in power narrowly lost a 2014 independence referendum, appears poised to be first out the U.K. door if its English neighbors don’t manage a negotiated U-turn to remain inside the EU. Most analysts dismiss that prospect.

“Scotland faces the prospect of being taken out of the EU against our will. I regard that as democratically unacceptable,” said Scotland’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. More than 60 percent of Scots voted to remain in the EU, compared with 48 percent of voters in the U.K. overall, reflecting Scots’ belief that EU membership provides a moderating influence on political life in a U.K. traditionally dominated by the vastly more numerous English.

Sturgeon emphasized that her administration would aim first to help negotiate a compromise between the British government in London and EU chiefs in Brussels “to secure our continuing place in the EU and the single market.” But she said such hopes appeared unlikely to prevail, and made a second Scottish independence referendum “now highly likely.” She said such a vote would have to be held before the United Kingdom formally exited the EU, which could happen as soon as 2018.

Next door, Irish nationalists in the long-disputed U.K. region of Northern Ireland say the British vote has reignited their demands for an all-island referendum to reunite the two parts of Ireland after 95 years of partition. They argue that a British withdrawal from the EU would force authorities in both parts of Ireland to renew customs and security controls on what would become the U.K.’s only land border with an EU state, the Republic of Ireland.

Sinn Fein, already in power in Northern Ireland’s 9-year-old unity government and positioned to become the Republic of Ireland’s top opposition party, insists that the hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens who live in Northern Ireland must be given a chance to vote for their own U.K. escape.