Sturgeon's independence stance lauded by Ireland's Senate

Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Senator Denis O'Donovan (left) greets First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon at Leinster House, Dublin Credit: PA

by Peter MacMahon

ITV Border Political Editor in Dublin

To call it a nationalist super-love-in would be to drastically understate the atmosphere around Nicola Sturgeon's appearance at the Irish parliament's upper house.

The First Minister delivered her speech in her usual polished way. It was well-crafted, well-delivered and perfectly pitched for her audience in the Seanad. A bit of history was made.

Yet even Ms Sturgeon could not have hoped for the response she got from the Senators who appeared to be trying to outdo one another in their praise for her and her cause of Scottish independence.

One after the other the members of the Upper House - from all parties and none - got to their feet to express the hope that Scotland would be joining Ireland as a small independent country very soon.

Either through a lack of knowledge or perhaps over enthusiasm one Senator even described Ms Sturgeon as the 'head of state'. She's not, that's the Queen, but that description said a lot.

There was much talk of Edinburgh-born James Connolly, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising which gave birth to an independent Ireland, described by one Sinn Fein Senator as an "iconic revolutionary".

Ms Sturgeon was described as a "shining light" and even as the "First Lady" of Scotland who might have failed in her independence quest the last time but would triumph the next.

It's was the kind of stuff that would turn the head of even the most level-headed politician, and the First Minister is one of the most level-headed there is.

But below this extravagant praise it is worth asking what Ms Sturgeon's two day visit to Ireland has achieved? Was its significance in inverse proportion to the plaudits doled out by the Senators?

First, it is worth noting that wise (perhaps cynical?) heads in Ireland say that the Senate is not in any respect the centre of power.

It has some legislative influence, but not much, and is not even directly elected. In a recent referendum the government tried unsuccessfully to abolish the Upper House.

Power lies in the lower house, the Dail, and there, it is said the politicians while broadly 'nationalist' take a more pragmatic, less starry-eyed, approach.

For them Scotland is now more important that it was. A pro-EU devolved government in a UK that is about follow through on Brexit is very useful, and worth have good relations with.

But what matters above all else to the government in Dublin is maintaining the peace in Northern Ireland and in that respect ministers in Whitehall are their primary focus.

And, of course, the administration in Stormont, with its complicated, delicate, sometimes precarious power sharing between unionist and nationalist.

But there is no doubt that Brexit has made the north-south relationship much more difficult and it is here there could be implications for Scotland.

Ireland's foreign minister, Charlie Flanagan, has spoken of the paramount importance of preserving the "invisible border" between the north and south of Ireland.

That means the free movement of people, and trade once the UK, which includes Northern Ireland, is out of the EU, while Ireland remains inside.

I have just interviewed Ms Sturgeon on this for tonight's Representing Border and the parallels for Scotland.

She told me that while the peace process did make Ireland different she was open to Scotland following the idea floated today of Northern Ireland having some 'special status" within the EU after Brexit.

The idea, mentioned by a Sinn Fein Senator, is not official Irish government policy but is being considered among many other options.

If it could somehow work - and the how of that is as yet unclear - then Ms Sturgeon, who wants Scotland to at least remain in the EU single market - might have a blueprint to adapt.

The idea would be that if there is a way of the north-south border being "invisible' while the two countries are respectively in and out of the EU, the same could work between Scotland and England.

However, when I asked Ms Sturgeon if she had any clearer idea from her talks here in Dublin of how such an arrangement - or a similar one - between Ireland north and south would work, she was unable to say.

This is probably because at this stage it is just an idea, or an idea which has not yet been fleshed out into policy detail.

But for this reason, despite all the understandable and obvious caveats about Ireland, what happens across the Irish Sea will be worth watching from a Scottish perspective.

For her part the First Minister, while still saying she may call a second independence referendum and looking for a special deal for Scotland, is adamant that she is not being deliberately obstructive.

Her political opponents do not see it that way of course. They think that everything, but everything the SNP and their leader do, is with the ultimate aim of independence in mind.

To illustrate her good will Ms Sturgeon herself pointed out to me that we were conducting the interview in the British Embassy in Dublin.

A certain irony, I suggested, given she is not in favour of Britain as a construct.

Not at all, the First Minister replied. If anything this demonstrated that she will work with the UK and Prime Minister Theresa May to achieve the Scottish government's aims.

As I said, this simply won't wash with the SNP's unionist opponents, but as we very slowly begin to see details of the Brexit deal, it is something Ms Sturgeon will he held to.

And in that respect at least the description of her visit to Ireland - by herself and just about everyone in the Senate today - as "historic" could prove to be accurate.