A FOX was let loose in the constitutional chicken coop early last week when UK Tory minister Steve Baker used a speech in the Republic of Ireland to raise the possibility of a border poll in Northern Ireland requiring a supermajority for reunification of the island to take place.

Baker, an ardent Brexiteer and junior Northern Ireland Office minister, thought it was a good idea to tell an audience in County Kildare that he favoured ripping up one of the pillars of the peace process by requiring any future referendum on Irish unity to require a majority well over the halfway threshold – 60% was his favoured figure.

Anyway, the fox had fun for a couple of days before it met its demise at the hands of Baker’s ministerial boss, the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

Asked by a Commons committee chair whether he could “shoot a fox that started running around earlier this week which has caused some consternation. That fox is the super-majority retrofit”, Heaton-Harris replied: “Yes is the obvious answer – I can absolutely shoot it. The comments should not be considered any shift in government policy.”

That seems clear enough – no shift, no supermajority requirement and no moving of the goalposts. In truth, there was little else that could be said by the UK Government given that the 50% plus one requirement for a simple majority in a border poll is enshrined in an international treaty the UK is a signatory to, in the form of the Good Friday Agreement.

The National: Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris shot down Steve Baker's comment on a referendum on Irish reunificationNorthern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris shot down Steve Baker's comment on a referendum on Irish reunification

But it does beg the question what a UK minister was doing freelancing his own opinions on the need for a supermajority. And the irony of a staunch Brexiteer lecturing anyone else on how to conduct constitutional referendums won’t have been lost on many, perhaps even Baker himself, who at least had the self-awareness to cite the shambolic aftermath of the 2016 vote to leave the EU as one of his motives for proposing change.

But the lessons of Brexit surely relate to the utter vacuum at the heart of the proposal to leave the EU rather than the fact of a simple majority requirement in the vote itself. That was the point made in response to Baker by the SDLP’s leader Colum Eastwood, whose comments were a masterclass in understated putdown. “Unionist votes cannot be worth more than anyone else’s,” he concluded.

Well, quite. And the same principle surely applies here in Scotland. No votes cannot be given more weight than Yes votes. Whatever the proponents of supermajorities may say about the need for major constitutional change needing to clear a higher bar than is usually accepted, the simple fact is that such stipulations undermine the most fundamental tenets of democracy.

But Baker’s comments, even assuming they were unauthorised, betray a deeper Tory – and wider Unionist – desire to shore up the current frontiers of the UK in just about any way they can, including here in Scotland.

Having come far closer than they thought they would to losing in 2014, there have been various outriders among the ranks of Unionist politicians and commentators floating this idea or that about how indyref2 should be subjected to any number of conditions, caveats and criteria. Supermajorities, turnout requirements and the like have variously been bandied about.

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Drawing comparisons between the constitutional situations in Scotland and Northern Ireland is always a fraught business – there is similarity on some points but a whole world of difference on others, so caution is always advised in making any direct read across.

However, last week’s wayward comment – let’s call it the Baker Doctrine – also allows us to explore a wider question on that comparative spectrum, namely the way in which developments in the Scottish and Northern Ireland situations potentially influence each other, and specifically from this side of the water what that could mean for the independence debate.

One of the most obvious and striking differences is the fact that Northern Ireland has a right enshrined in law to decide its status in a referendum – albeit one which is heavily contingent on the will of the UK government of the day, and nominally at the discretion of the Secretary of State.

Scotland has no such enshrined right to a referendum. But it does have something which is, arguably, even stronger – namely the weight of political, electoral and democratic precedent.

That being the case, and notwithstanding the democratic roadblock that has been put in place, the odds would still be on Scotland gaining independence before Ireland being unified, given the multilayered complexities involved in the latter.

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But it seems the UK Government is becoming more attuned to potential synergies between the two processes, which is why the Baker Doctrine should be seen not just as the individual flight of fancy of a rogue junior minister but a symptom of the deep existential angst which now shadows the thinking of those for whom preservation of the UK in its current form is an article of faith.

In short, they can see mileage in using one process to potentially stymie the other. Bluntly, the existence in law of a right to referendum for the people of Northern Ireland is an obvious problem for any UK Government which wishes to say that Scotland has no such right.

For as long as that right remains largely theoretical, it is less of an issue. But what happens if, and perhaps when, inexorable political and demographic trends mean the ability to resist an Irish border poll, as outlined in the Good Friday terms, is severely tested? What is then said to Scotland, if a pro-independence, pro-referendum majority remains in place here? It’s in this light that Baker’s comments need to be seen – so much easier to hold the line in both places if the dice are loaded.

Those tensions may only be accentuated under any UK Labour government, given the party’s traditional stance on Ireland, albeit one which is now skewed by Starmer’s uber-Unionist rhetoric.

But in the end, no UK government of any persuasion will find it easy to hold back the tide of history, and in times to come, Steve Baker’s comments may occupy a tiny footnote signifying the desperation that has started to characterise some Unionist thinking.

Stuart Nicolson was the head of communications for former first minister Nicola Sturgeon