Plans for an independence referendum in Scotland this year have been “paused” by the Scottish Government as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Scottish Constitution Secretary Michael Russell revealed preparations had been halted in a letter to Michael Gove, British Cabinet Office Minister, which also called on the London government to suspend Brexit negotiations for six months.
Scottish government officials have contacted the Electoral Commission to advise that referendum preparations have been called off for the time being.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP had called for a second vote take place this year, despite the Tory government emphatically ruling one out.
The Scottish government has now officially asked the Electoral Commission to defer matters until public health had improved.
Mr Russell’s letter said: “Because of the crisis, the Scottish government has paused work on preparing for an independence referendum this year... That will allow us to focus all available resource on current and future demands in what is an unprecedented set of circumstances. It follows from this that a referendum will not take place this year.”
He went on to “strongly suggest” that the London government “institute a pause to EU/UK [Brexit] negotiations for at least six months”.
“It would seem impossible for business and others to cope with the enormous challenge of Coronavirus while at the same time preparing for a completely new relationship with the EU,” he said.
In Ireland, meanwhile, the ‘Yes for Unity’ campaign for a border poll has decided to suspend all planned public events until further notice as a result of the health crisis.
“We ask our followers and supporters to direct energies towards helping our most vulnerable within our communities,” they said, and called for increased debating and campaigning online.
The next major development in the campaign for Irish Unity is set to take place at the Belfast Court of Appeal in a few weeks, when the court will deliver a judgement in a potentially landmark case.
If a case taken by Raymond McCord, a victims’ rights activist, succeeds he will force the British Direct Ruler in Ireland to publish the exact criteria that will trigger a border poll.
Different parties, politicians and agencies have made contradictory arguments for when a unity referendum should be called, leading to allegations of ‘shifting goalposts’ over what had been a key element of the 1998 Good friday Agreement.
A clarification of the situation could greatly assist the ongoing debate on Irish unity in the north of Ireland.