IN the days and weeks before the worst rioting in Belfast in decades, signs appeared all over the city announcing: “Loyalists will NEVER accept a border in the Irish Sea”. They were signed: “Unionists against the Northern Ireland protocol”. Borders, real or imagined, cause trouble. And that applies to Scotland as well as Ireland.

There has never been a direct read across from the troubles in the province to Scotland. But Northern Ireland is only 12 miles away, and closer culturally and politically than we’d like to think. If nothing else, recent disturbances underline the importance of there being a clear border policy if and when Scotland leaves the United Kingdom for the European Union. At least, a better policy than the spatchcocked and unworkable deal struck between Boris Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker in 2019.

Europe is one of the biggest issues in the Scottish elections, yet no-one wants to talk about it. The Tories would rather draw a veil over the Northern Ireland Protocol to avoid blame for the many problems it’s caused. Labour don’t want to talk about it because Keir Starmer has issued an edict that Brexit is history and Labour mustn’t reopen old wounds. But the SNP have a unique responsibility to talk about borders, because they are the only party in this election proposing to create a new one: between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

So just what is the policy of the Scottish Government on the border with England? Well, it seems to be: nothing to see here, move along. All will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds after independence. There will be no hard border with the UK because Nicola Sturgeon says there won’t be one.

The First Minister asserts there will be “free trade” with the UK because that is what both sides of the border want. That’s true. Despite protestations to the contrary, Westminster would probably be happy to pretend there is no harder trade border at Berwick than there is at present. But there is a third party in this constitutional marriage: the European Union. And following the mess in Northern Ireland, Brussels is not going to entertain another fudged protocol that plays havoc with the rules of the single market.

One reason the UK Government seems strangely relaxed about the current street demonstrations is that they put pressure on Brussels to relax border controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK. The EU has slapped a range of intrusive and bureaucratic border checks, or “non-tariff barriers”, on goods since Brexit. Sanitary and phytosanitary checks on food products have caused delays and led to empty shelves appearing in Belfast supermarkets. Loyalist organisations like the UDA and UVF saw this as an opportunity to assert their unionist credentials on the streets.

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That these border checks cause friction and frustration is entirely intentional. The EU is essentially a protectionist organisation which seeks to restrict free trade, especially in agricultural products, in order to reduce competition with European producers. Non-tariff barriers are a bulwark of the European Single Market. The Northern Ireland protocol fudged these barriers and made the single market potentially porous.

Brussels is not going to go down this road again. Scotland will have to enforce the rules of the single market after independence, and that means a hard border. It may well be that Scots believe this is a worthwhile price to pay to be free of Westminster control. There would be compensations for EU membership, such as freer migration to Scotland from Europe and frictionless access to the richest market on the planet. But what is unacceptable is the pretence that there no issue.

The importance of Europe in the Holyrood election is being stressed by figures who could hardly be described as enemies of Nicola Sturgeon. Dr Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, has been turning out papers and speeches for the past year urging the SNP to think clearly and urgently about Europe, not least because Scotland may become independent in the very near future. The 2014 independence prospectus no longer applies because that assumed both Scotland and England would both remain in the EU single market.

The SNP avoid discussing the border question because it immediately raises a raft of other ones. What currency would Scotland use after independence? How long it might take to rejoin the European Union? How would Scotland meet the accession criteria? It also begs the rather important question of whether Scotland would really want to rejoin the European Union after independence, at least without a referendum.

What we do know, with reasonable certainty, is that the European Union would not block or delay Scotland’s membership, as might have been the case in times past. Post-Brexit, Europe would welcome an independent Scotland with open arms. Mind you, Scotland would have to be a fully independent country before those arms were opened. And that’s the problem.

Under EU rules, Scotland would have to agree in principle to join the euro and get its budget deficit below 3 per cent before it could enter the European Union. Now, there is no timetable on these, and some countries seem able to delay euro membership indefinitely. Similarly, the Stability Pact under which countries must trim their budget deficits has been honoured more in the breach. The 3% deficit limit is currently suspended due to Covid.

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Nevertheless, while Scotland might not have to meet these requirements on day one, it would have to show that it is capable of meeting them. In other words, Scotland would have to show that it is in sovereign control of its currency and its budgetary arrangements. It could not join the EU while it retained sterling and remained under the financial control of the Bank of England. This could rule out membership for at least a decade if the Scottish Government kept the pound in the way envisaged by the SNP’s 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission report.

Kirsty Hughes suggests there could be some transitional deal under which Scotland could join without meeting the full accession requirements. A Scottish Protocol, perhaps, whereby Scotland remained in the financial and regulatory orbit of the UK at the same time as it joined the European Single Market. But this seems highly doubtful precisely because of the experience in Northern Ireland.

The Scottish Government needs to be straight with voters if only to avoid a border backlash. Membership of the European Union is practically the raison d’etre of the SNP. With robotic regularity, Nicola Sturgeon insists that Scotland’s removal from the EU represents the “material change of circumstances” that justifies a repeat independence referendum. Present opinion polls suggest that, with or without Alex Salmond’s Alba Party (and almost certainly without), Sturgeon is about to win her largest-ever mandate for that referendum.

If the Scottish Government is not straight with voters now about the border question then it requires little imagination to think of unionist organisations in Scotland that will try to exploit this. More seriously for Nicola Sturgeon: if voters only discover the border problem during the next referendum campaign, that could kill Yes stone dead.