Here’s what we must do to deliver and win an independence referendum

When Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Tanaiste, observed last week that there was “no majority any more in Northern Ireland either for Unionism or nationalism”, he was in one sense stating a truism proved by polls and actual elections.

But in another he was making a key point about Scotland, too. The constitution of all the parts of these islands is in flux, and it is time to talk about, and then bring about, new solutions.

Varadkar was responding to criticism of his Fine Gael party conference speech the previous day in which he had talked of the “mission” of his party to work towards Irish re-unification.

The UK Tory Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis had claimed to be “surprised” at that remark and had suggested that politicians should “dial down the rhetoric”.

Others criticised Varadkar by saying this was “not the time” for such a debate.

Leo Varadkar is a canny politician. He was not raising the issue carelessly but very deliberately, no doubt impelled in part by the consistently strong showing of Sinn Fein in opinion polls in Ireland.

But he was also raising it because of the huge changes brought about by Brexit on both islands and the need to recognise that the status quo died with the UK’s membership of the EU.

“This is not the time” was of course Theresa May’s mantra when responding to the mandate of the SNP Government to hold a referendum, and Michael Gove was at it again this week, gaslighting Scotland with his view that no such referendum would be “permitted” before the next UK General Election, which is currently scheduled for the end of 2024.

Gove and his colleagues do that in part to provoke the national movement in Scotland into an equal and opposite hard line in the hope that we will make a mistake, or many mistakes about tone, content and action.

Yet he also does it because he knows the current constitutional and political shape of the UK is challenged like never before and that the Tories have no answer to that challenge except to stand against it.

Varadkar, of course, was not suggesting an immediate Irish referendum but he was saying that there should be an open consideration of their constitutional future by the people of Ireland.

Here on the other island, there is, of course, a complete and continuing Tory refusal to talk about the constitution at all, whether it be about the long overdue reform of the second-largest non-elected legislative body in the world, the development of fairer and more equitable structures for dispute resolution between the devolved administrations, Irish re-unification or Scottish independence.

Shamefully. this constitutional omerta has been accepted by Labour and the Liberals, whose failure to be any form of intelligent and effective opposition is staggering.

Indeed, they have colluded in turning the constitutional clock back.

To Westminster, change is a political vice that must not speak its name but a number of senior retired civil servants are now saying openly what the UK Tories know perfectly well, which is that the legitimate democrat demand for the right to choose cannot be denied for ever.

The refusal to talk is unsustainable and indeed – providing we keep the heid – the Gove approach will increase demand for change rather than diminish it.

The fact that the status quo – the Union – is no longer an option is a huge advantage to the Yes campaign. The Tories know that but how should we react?

Firstly we should hold a referendum – to which the SNP made a clear and cast-iron commitment in its election manifesto and for which there is a clear majority in the Scottish Parliament – at the right time to win the campaign and the vote.

We must also accept that the right time is, to most of our fellow citizens, when the threat the pandemic poses to the people of Scotland has been reduced very significantly and normal campaigning is fully possible.

It is simply a fact that the progress being made towards a referendum up until early 2020 was halted by the most difficult public health threat in a century and that that threat continues, although fortuitously is slowly diminishing.

The franchise and details of how that referendum is to be held are already in law – though it is still an area for malicious misrepresentation by Gove – but there is more work to do in ensuring the link is established between recovery and referendum as two sides of the same coin.

At the same time, the SNP need to build on our contact with voters on the issue and our links across the Yes movement. The SNP team at every level remains a formidable election-winning operation, as May’s Holyrood vote proved yet again, and it is keen to be fully engaged in the next stage of achieving its founding goal.

But we must also be mindful of the clear message from the Citizens’ Assembly – or rather two clear messages.

One is about the thirst for impartial accurate information, not propaganda.

The second is about the type of Scotland that people want to live in. And that is the key point.

The debate must not be just about the disadvantages of being trapped in an isolated and backward-looking UK, more and more obvious as they are.

It must be about, in the great words of John Adams, the second US President, “beginning government anew from the foundations and building as we choose”.

It is a rare opportunity to create a new society in a renewed country. We need to be ambitious, energetic and excited. We must put anger aside and although impatience is justified we must be aware of the concerted attempt to make us take the wrong step.

We still have work to do to ensure we are ready to live in the first days of a much better country. The pandemic has held that back, but it has also made it more essential than ever.