Among the uncertainties unleashed by the Brexit referendum, which early Friday morning heralded the United Kingdom’s coming breakup with the European Union, was what happens to the “union” of the United Kingdom itself. Ahead of the vote, marquee campaign themes included, on the “leave” side, the question of the U.K.’s sovereignty within the European Union—specifically its ability to control migration—and, on the “remain” side, the economic benefits of belonging to the world’s largest trading bloc, as well as the potentially catastrophic consequences of withdrawing from it. Many of the key arguments on either side concerned the contours of the U.K.-EU relationship, and quite sensibly so. “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” was, after all, the precise question people were voting on.
But the referendum’s over, the question on the ballot is answered, and now there are new questions to resolve. One of them concerns the politics within the U.K., and how the United Kingdom as a unit will withstand the forces pulling its constituent parts not just away from the European Union, but from each other.
The United Kingdom’s four component nations went different ways in the referendum, with majorities in England and Wales wanting out and majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland wanting in. With that divided outcome have come announcements from parties in both Scotland and Northern Ireland that each could re-evaluate its relationship to the others. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party, which promoted and lost a Scottish independence referendum two years ago, announced that her party could seek a new one. In Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party—whose militant wing, the Irish Republican Army, fought a bloody decades-long battle to withdraw from the United Kingdom and unite with Ireland—has recommended a vote on independence from the U.K. and union with the Republic of Ireland.