The joint Scottish-Irish review – an unprecedented step?

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What has been announced?

On 4 November 2019, the Scottish and Irish Governments announced “a joint bilateral review to look at how the countries can work together over the next five years.” This blog looks at the details of the announcement and provides a snapshot of the links that already exist between the two countries.

Announcing the review, the Irish Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney highlighted what he called the deepening of relations between the two countries in the last twenty years since the introduction of devolution in the UK and the Good Friday Agreement.

According to both Governments, the review will cover:

  • collaboration in key policy areas including trade, research and culture
  • joint initiatives such as the Irish-Scottish Health Forum
  • a focus on cooperation beyond government, in the areas of business and economy, community, academic and research links, culture, and rural, coastal and island communities.

In a joint article, published in the Scotsman, Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, and Simon Coveney provided more information on the scope of the review writing:

“We want to learn from the best in each country and empower those who can bring our relationship to a new level.”

The review will lead to the publication of a joint report, to be released in the second quarter of 2020.  The Irish Government has indicated the aim of the report will be to:

“set out current areas of bilateral cooperation and identifying opportunities for cooperation or joint initiatives in new areas, which are devolved to Scotland, where these have the potential to support the policy objectives of both Governments. This report will be a public document, setting out how Scotland and Ireland will work together in the period 2020-2025.”

The review will be led by the Consulate General of Ireland in Edinburgh and the Scottish Government Hub in Dublin.  According to Fiona Hyslop. the reason for the Scottish Government pursuing this review is that:

“In this era of global uncertainty, it is more important than ever that we seek to strengthen our relations even further, allowing us to improve in areas where we already work together and identify new opportunities for collaboration.”

Political links

Whilst it is unusual for an EU member state government to work jointly with a sub-state government to review the joint links between the countries, Scotland and Ireland already maintain close political links. The Scottish and Irish Governments are both members of the British Irish Council whilst the Scottish Parliament and the Oireachtas are both represented in the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

Ireland’s Head of State, President Michael D. Higgins visited Scotland in 2016 and 2017.  During his visit in 2016, President Higgins address the Scottish Parliament.

The First Minister visited Dublin as recently as May 2019.  During her visit she met the Taoiseach and hosted an investment round table with the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC).  In a speech she emphasised the links between Scotland and Ireland:

“Scotland is an outward-looking, welcoming, European nation that greatly values the friendship and progressive values it shares with Ireland, and we are determined that relationship will go from strength to strength.

“The relationship with Ireland is of vital importance to Scotland. As our fifth largest export market, business and cultural links between Scotland and Ireland are very important.

“Whatever happens with Brexit, we will not allow it to damage our relationship with our closest partners and friends, and we will continue to encourage trade, inward investment and international cultural collaboration.”

Previously, in October 2017 the First Minister visited Dublin and met the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and in November 2016, the First Minister met with President Higgins, and addressed the Seanad (the upper house of the Irish parliament), becoming the first serving head of Government ever to do so.

In terms of Parliamentary links, Seán Ó Fearghaíl TD, Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann visited the Scottish Parliament in September 2019 and met with the Presiding Officer.  Next week, on 13 November 2019, the Presiding Officer will host a reception for Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney who is visiting Scotland.

Trade and cooperation

The Scottish Government opened an Innovation and Investment Hub, in Dublin, in February 2016.  According to the Scottish Government, it serves as its “representation in Ireland” with its key aim to be to develop the “pre-existing links between Scotland and Ireland”.  The policy sectors highlighted as priorities for the Dublin Hub are:

  • financial services
  • creative arts
  • culture and heritage
  • renewable energy and
  • energy efficiency.

In 2017, Ireland was Scotland’s fifth largest international export market with exports worth just under £1.5 billion.   As the graph below shows, whilst there have been fluctuations in the value of exports, the overall value of exports to Ireland has increased by 80% since 2007 when they were worth just over £800 million.

201911_SPICe_Ireland_Trade_Valuee of exports

Scotland’s top four export sectors to Ireland in 2017 were

  1. Chemical Sciences
  2. Wholesale and Retail Trade
  3. Technology, Digital and Media
  4. Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing

Together, these sectors account for around 71% of goods and services exports to Ireland.  There are no figures available showing the value of Irish exports to Scotland.

Scottish and Irish public sector and academic organisations already work closely together in a number of European Union cross-border cooperation projects under the European Territorial Cooperation (Interreg) Programmes.  Specifically, the Interreg VA (5A) programme has been designed to help overcome the issues that arise from the existence of a border and encourage cross-border cooperation. These issues range from access to transport, health and social care services, environmental issues and enterprise development.  The programme covers cooperation between projects in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland and is worth €283m between 2014 and 2020.  Eligible areas of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland are shown in the picture below.


Education links

A number of education links exist between Scotland and Ireland including the following examples. The University of Edinburgh and University College Dublin signed a Memorandum of Agreement, including funding to support collaborative research in Autumn 2018 focused initially on Geosciences, migration studies and “one health”.

The University of Glasgow is leading on the SalmoSim project which aims to build an artificial salmon gut to better understand fish digestion. The three year project will work in collaboration with the Marine Institute and University of Cork in Ireland as well as Nofima, Alltech and Marine Harvest.

Around 1800 Irish domiciled students studied at Scottish universities in 2017-18.  In terms of EU domiciled students, Irish students make up the fourth largest cohort of EU domiciled students studying in Scotland.  More students come to the University of Glasgow from Ireland than any other EU country outside of the UK. Over 500 Irish students commence study at the University of Glasgow every year

Cultural links

Scotland and Ireland have a number of population and cultural links including:

  • The 2011 census revealed that just over 1% of Scotland’s population (around 54,000) identified as white Irish.
  • The Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic languages are distinct, but they are part of the same dialect. It is thought that Scots Gaelic originates from Ireland.
  • Shinty arrived in Scotland from Ireland and is very similar in form to Irish hurling. Scotland and Ireland play an annual shinty/hurling international.
  • Whisky and whiskey is a national drink and key export for both Scotland and Ireland.


At this stage, it is not entirely clear what the review of links between Scotland and Ireland will highlight or indeed what recommendations for further action may be proposed.  Undoubtedly, links between the two countries are strong but it is unclear at the moment how this review will seek to develop them further.

Iain McIver, SPICe Research