Disunited Kingdom: hard Brexit threat tests historic ties

London (AFP) –


New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's big tour of Britain saw him booed by EU supporters in Wales and heckled by nationalists in Scotland. Northern Ireland's fractious parties then told him that his Brexit plans were reopening old wounds.

The Conservative party leader's swing across the four UK countries in his first week in office was designed to drum up support for his high-risk pledge to leave the EU on October 31 at any cost.

But he found a less than united kingdom that -- while not quite coming apart at the seams -- is becoming increasingly open about deep-seated suspicions of London.

Welsh sheep farmers are worried that the 27 remaining members of the European Union will throw up barriers to their lamb exports in case of a messy "no-deal" divorce.

Scottish nationalists say that they never voted to leave the bloc in first place and might now try to become an independent state in order to rejoin.

And the prospect of a hard border splitting EU member Ireland from British Northern Ireland has revived memories of late 20th century sectarian unrest.

"It was perfectly foreseeable that the hardest of hard Brexit would put huge strains on the union," Centre for European Reform's deputy director John Springford said.

"It's clear that Brexit, which is an English nationalist project, really... matters much more to him than the future of the union," Springford told AFP.

- Opportune gift -

Some in London doubt that Johnson is a man of true conviction and believe he simply rides the political tides.

But his three-year devotion to Brexit has put him on a collision course with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her separatist Scottish National Party.

Sturgeon hopes that discontent over Brexit -- 62 percent of Scots voted to stay in the EU in 2016 -- will push her over the top in a rerun of a 2014 independence referendum the pro-UK side won 55-45.

She has tentatively scheduled a new poll for next year. The British government would have to give her the ultimate go-ahead for a vote.

Scottish nationalists "would probably see Brexit as their best opportunity to push for independence," said Open Europe think tank analyst David Shiels.

Springford called Johnson "a gift for Sturgeon".

"If (Johnson) manages to force through a no-deal Brexit, then the likelihood that Scotland leaves is much higher."

But resistance to independence is also strong.

Scotland's last drive was thwarted by concerns over a new currency and the loss of open access to the British market.

Brussels has also cautioned that there would be no clear path for Scotland to join the EU on its own.

- 'Fundamental questions' -

Northern Ireland was torn apart for three decades by a civil conflict involving the British military and the Catholic and Protestant communities.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending the bombings and street clashes hinged on an open Irish frontier and relaxed citizenship rules.

A no-deal Brexit could lead to border checks once again -- something that local residents on both sides and of all political affiliation are against.

Sinn Fein republican leader Mary Lou McDonald said after meeting Johnson that "Brexit has raised fundamental questions around the wisdom and the sustainability of the partition of our island".

Uncertainty over the day after Brexit creates what Shiels called "a moment of danger for the union of the United Kingdom".

"The danger of a no-deal is that people in Scotland and in Ireland jump to support independence -- or in the case of Northern Ireland unification -- and that weakens the union," The UK in a Changing Europe director Anand Menon agreed.

Yet analysts also caution against overstating the case for the island kingdom's break-up.

Pitfalls include potential resistance in Dublin to having to fill the North's annual budget gap of around £10 billion ($12 billion, 11 billion euros).

Shiels added that no-deal chaos would create "an issue of crisis management and there may not be an appetite in Scotland or anywhere else in the UK in those circumstances" for a split from London.