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Scotland, Ireland Residents Weigh In On Brexit

The debate over Brexit is at the heart of the U.K.'s general election campaign, and that is especially true for voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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Transcript:

DON GONYEA, HOST:

We're going to begin today with the election campaign - not the one here in the U.S. but in the U.K. Britain has a general election scheduled for December 12. Recall that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked for this vote after his push for the U.K. to exit the European Union by the end of October was turned back by lawmakers in Parliament. So the debate over Brexit is at the heart of this election. NPR's Frank Langfitt has been covering the campaign and joins us now from London.

Frank, welcome.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Don.

GONYEA: First of all, a lot of the campaign so far has been about Brexit. But last week's stabbing attack on London Bridge has also put terrorism on the agenda. How's that impacted the campaign, Frank?

LANGFITT: Well, it's immediately become a political football. The attacker, the guy who did these stabbings, was named Usman Khan. He was out on early release from a terror conviction. And so Prime Minister Johnson - he was basically blaming the Labour Party, the opposition Labour Party, saying that he was released under policies that were created when Labour was in charge. The problem with that argument is Johnson's Conservative Party has been in power for nearly a decade, so trying to blame Labour for that is probably not going to be very successful.

GONYEA: The latest polls show Prime Minister Johnson's Conservative Party ahead of the main opposition Labour Party. But what's the trend here - good or bad for Johnson and his party?

LANGFITT: It's not good, actually. They have been way ahead all along, and there's been talk of Johnson's Conservative Party just basically clobbering Labour. But there's been some polls recently that shows that lead is shrinking, and it's getting a bit tighter. Johnson has this clear message - get Brexit done. But he stumbled in the last couple of weeks.

I'll just give you one example. Johnson, as you probably know, has a reputation as a womanizer. He's had a child out of wedlock recently. He was asked in interviews, how many children do you have? And he wouldn't even answer that. Again, this is the prime minister of the country, and that sort of feeds into a sense that certainly many of his critics have that he's kind of a rogue, and he's not very straightforward with the public.

GONYEA: OK. As far as Brexit is concerned, you've been reporting lately from two places that have some unique perspectives on Brexit, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Let's start with Northern Ireland. What impact is Brexit having there?

LANGFITT: Don, I would have to say it's profound. And I would say that from my most recent trip, it's very visibly straining the ties that are holding the country together. That's not an exaggeration. You remember Northern Ireland - they voted against Brexit and Boris Johnson. His solution to this trouble that we've talked about a lot - about a border across the island of Ireland - was to actually create a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. That was a way to avoid potentially some violence and certainly a lot of friction along the border on the island.

Well, that has made a lot of people in Northern Ireland who are very devoted to the United Kingdom feel like they've been sold out by Boris Johnson. And there - it has actually spurred more talk of actually eventually reunifying with the Republic of Ireland to the south. I was talking to a politician named Naomi Long. She leads the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland. And this is what she told me.

NAOMI LONG: I think that Northern Ireland's future within the U.K. is less certain than it has ever been, certainly in my lifetime. I would not relate a scenario where by leaving the European Union, the United Kingdom ceases to exist.

LANGFITT: Now, I've been going to Northern Ireland since the Brexit vote, Don. This is the first time I've heard a lot of people saying that Brexit could actually end up backfiring and breaking up the U.K. And it does feel to me like there's a change and a turning point in public mood there and maybe for the future of this country.

GONYEA: OK. Now let's bounce over to Scotland. You were just there last week. Listeners may remember there's long been a debate about another push for independence from the U.K. because of Brexit. What are you hearing from voters?

LANGFITT: Kind of something quite similar. You remember, Scotland voted against Brexit, and politicians there are using Brexit as a rallying cry to say, let's have a second independence referendum. The English, who are the vast majority of voters in this country, voted for Brexit. Scottish feel like they are constantly being outvoted of the things that they care the most about. And Nicola Sturgeon - she's head of the Scottish National Party - she is trying to use this to galvanize people to push for a second referendum. I met a voter last week named Lynn Cunnington (ph), and she says Brexit is just one more reason why Scotland should go its own way.

LYNN CUNNINGTON: I think the reason that Brexit has put more emphasis behind independence is because if we cannot be listened to as part of the union on such an important topic, we then obviously need to look at independence because if our voice cannot be heard within a union, then it's time to really think about leaving that union.

GONYEA: Frank, I hear that, but how seriously really should we take this talk of a fraying of the ties that unite the U.K.?

LANGFITT: Honestly, Don, I - actually, I'm a skeptic generally. I take these seriously. But nothing's going to happen for quite some time. A Scottish referendum, I think, is a number of years in the future. Boris Johnson said he's certainly not going to approve one while he's in charge.

And the other thing is, this would be very costly - say, in the case of Northern Ireland joining the republic in the south. The Northern Ireland economy is much weaker, and this would cost taxpayers in Ireland a lot of money to try to continue to support the North. So I think it is years off. But I don't think we should be surprised if we see 10 years from now that the United Kingdom looks different.

GONYEA: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt talking with us from London.

Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.