Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Jonathan Evershed, University College Dublin
On Monday 23 November, after months of negotiations following the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) elections in May, Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, and Adam Price, the leader of the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, held a press conference to announce a new three-year Cooperation Agreement between Plaid and the Welsh Labour government. Falling short of a full coalition deal, the agreement sets out a joint approach across a range of policy areas. Among almost 50 policy pledges, some flagship promises include the extension of free school meals to all primary school pupils, the establishment of national energy and construction companies, reform and expansion of the Senedd, and “immediate and radical action” to tackle the proliferation of second and holiday homes which has been driving spiralling house prices, and tearing the heart out of rural and coastal Welsh-speaking communities.
Already ratified by the Executive Committees of both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, the deal will now be put to the Plaid Cymru membership, which meets online for its conference this weekend. If approved, it will provide the basis for what Drakeford has called a “stable Senedd capable of delivering radical change and reform”. Plaid’s 13 Senedd seats combine with Labour’s 30 to provide a convincing majority which leaves the Welsh Conservatives – on 18 seats – in the wilderness (the final of the Senedd’s 60 seats is held by the Welsh Liberal Democrats).
On the face of it, the deal represents a major victory for Plaid Cymru, which had a difficult election in the face of a strong showing for Welsh Labour, which was buoyed by its perceived competence in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. This included the loss of the Rhondda seat held by former party leader, Leanne Wood. Many of the nationalist party’s core manifesto pledges are delivered through this agreement. While a few cans – including on rent controls and pathways to net zero by 2035 – have been kicked down the road, the Plaid leadership have done a good job of pushing the Welsh government leftwards, deepening the ‘clear red water’ which Welsh Labour has sought to establish between London and Cardiff since the onset of devolution in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Critically, and as Ifan Morgan Jones, writing for Nation.Cymru (one of a number of new national news outlets that has emerged in Wales in recent years), notes, many of the measures in the cooperation agreement, “are aimed at developing or at least stopping the dissolution of Wales as a distinctive and more integrated cultural and political sphere”. The agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru represents and seeks to consolidate Wales’ coming of age as a political community: one whose political culture is increasingly distinct and diverging from neighbouring England in the wake of Brexit and Covid.
While a majority of Welsh voters elected to ‘Leave’ in 2016, the way that Brexit has unfolded has been economically damaging for Wales, and wholly at odds with the soft Brexit sought by the Welsh government. As Dan Wincott has argued, the UK government’s ‘muscularly unionist’ approach on Brexit has summarily excluded the Scottish and Welsh governments from meaningful involvement in negotiations, ridden rough-shod over their preferences, and functioned to recentralise power in Westminster. Conversely, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the benefits afforded to Wales by devolved decision making. The net result has been diminished faith in the structures of the Union – which Drakeford has dismissed as unfit for purpose – and increasing confidence in Wales’ ability to stand on its own two feet.
This is reflected in the burgeoning of what has been termed ‘indy-curiosity’, which has driven, and been driven by, the growth of the grass-roots ‘Yes Cymru’ movement. Polling (which is even more patchy and sporadic in Wales than it is in Ireland) ahead of the Senedd election in May put support for independence at an historic high of 40 percent. While Labour under Drakeford remains unionist “to the extent that this remains in Wales’ interests”, in 2021 it campaigned on a commitment to fairly radical constitutional reform. The party’s deal with Plaid Cymru – which supports independence for Wales – comes on the back of the prior establishment of an Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, which explicitly includes independence in the range of options for constitutional change it is able to explore and report on.
Despite warm rhetoric, relationships between Ireland and Wales have historically neither been as convivial or as deeply-rooted as they are reputed to be. Wales’ pro-Brexit majority and post-Brexit changes in trade flows, which have re-routed goods away from Wales’ Ireland-facing ports, have added new tensions. Too often in Ireland, British-Irish relations are conceived of as those that pertain between Merrion Street and Downing Street. But what happens in Wales, as distinct from what happens in England or Scotland, matters on the island of Ireland, and vice versa.
Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act offers a world-leading model in governance for sustainability and social justice. The SDLP’s Matt O’Toole has flagged the Welsh government’s strategy aimed at retaining young talent in Wales as something which should be emulated by the Northern Ireland Executive as it seeks to tackle its own problem with brain-drain. A recent interview with Mark Drakeford for RTÉ’s Brexit Republic revealed the stark ways in which the Welsh government’s post-Brexit preferences diverge from those of Westminster’s. In the Welsh First Minister, the Irish government has an important ally as it continues to confront Brexit’s ongoing challenges. For its part, Wales will surely continue to look to Ireland’s example as it contemplates its constitutional future.
Building on the work of the Welsh government’s office in Ireland, and the reopening of Ireland’s consulate in Wales, the recent Ireland-Wales Shared Statement and Joint Action Plan and Ireland-Wales Forum offer important foundations on which to build a stronger Ireland-Wales relationship. Amid post-Brexit debates about constitutional change across ‘these islands’, seeking both to broaden and deepen relations with Wales should be a key priority on both sides of the Irish border.
Jonathan Evershed is the Newman Fellow in Constitutional Futures at the Institute for British-Irish Studies (IBIS) and School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe), University College Dublin.