Joint bilateral review of the relationship between Scotland and Ireland - public engagement: analytical summary

This is a report of the public engagement exercise conducted as part of the Ireland-Scotland joint bilateral review.

Executive Summary 

Introduction and Policy Context

This report provides an analysis of the contributions from the public received to inform the joint bilateral review process. The review was launched by the Government of Ireland and the Scottish Government to look at how the countries can strengthen their relationship and work together over the next five years. It is the first undertaken by the two countries, and covers co-operation in key policy areas such as trade, research and culture, as well as exploring ways to collaborate to help our rural and island communities thrive. The Bilateral Review Steering Committee was keen to draw upon the widest range of ideas and experiences from both countries, and designed an open engagement approach that included an online questionnaire to specifically invite contributions from those with an interest in the relationship between Scotland and Ireland. This questionnaire ran for three months until 20 March 2020. The engagement focused on existing collaboration and potential areas for development, while the questionnaire asked a range of general interest questions to explore perceptions of the Scotland-Ireland relationship, as well as providing the opportunity to offer views and ideas on the five main themes of the review[1]

  • Business and economic interests
  • Community and diaspora links
  • Culture experience and exchange
  • Rural, coastal and island communities
  • Academic, educational and research links


1,068 responses were submitted to the online questionnaire via Citizen Space. Following the closure of the online questionnaire, all responses were screened for offensive content, and 1,062 responses were then analysed. All closed questions were analysed using descriptive quantitative cross-tabs, illustrating frequencies of responses and grouped according to where respondents are based. All responses to open questions were read, summarised and coded in a qualitative analysis. These codes were then aggregated into sub-themes that are nested within the five main themes of the engagement. Responses submitted directly via email were recorded, summarised and content allocated to the sub-themes and incorporated into the analysis. This report therefore presents the combination of online and email submissions, from both individuals and organisations, responding to both open and closed questions on the nature of the bilateral relationship. The data has been generated by a self-selected sample of respondents, and therefore should not be interpreted as representative of the views of either country’s population.


The online engagement exercise attracted a total of 1,068 responses from the length and breadth of both countries, including 70 responses from ‘elsewhere’. Three responses were received which had been developed jointly by institutions in both Scotland and Ireland. Overall, 73% of the online contributions originated in Scotland. Almost 30% of these 778 Scotland-based responses were from the Council areas for Glasgow and Edinburgh, while over half of the 216 Ireland-based responses were from the Dublin/Leinster region, with 18% from Ulster and 16% from Munster.

The vast majority submitted via Citizens Space were from individual respondents (96%). Forty-nine organisational responses were submitted via email or email. 

Questionnaire Results – Closed Questions

Overwhelmingly, the online responses demonstrated a positive view of the Scotland-Ireland relationship, with 79% viewing it as positive overall, and 39% viewing it as very positive. Over 90% of respondents based in Ireland viewed the relationship positively compared to just over 75% of respondents based in Scotland. When asked how they view the relevance of the relationship in the coming five years, more than three-quarters of online respondents viewed it as increasing in importance. That view was most strongly held among respondents based in Ireland at 92%, compared to 71% of those based in Scotland. 

Half of the online contributors felt that the image of the other country had improved in the past five years. Scotland-based respondents said the most visible element of Ireland in Scotland was community and diaspora activity (61%), and Ireland-based respondents said that sporting activity and events were the most visible element of Scotland in Ireland (64%). When asked to rank how important various aspects of the relationship were, a shared interest in sustaining rural, coastal and island communities recorded the highest support from respondents, with 73% considering this very important. In contrast, when asked where the economic relationship might expand, energy and tourism scored highest with all contributors, regardless of country of origin.

When asked to identify the range and extent of personal engagement with the other country, it is notable that over half of respondents indicated they were already aware, active or keen to do more in each of the categories explored. Patterns varied across activities and between countries. While the degree of interest and engagement was stronger across responses from the Ireland-based sample,  in general both the Ireland-based and Scotland-based respondents were most extensively engaging with the other country through watching and/or reading film, literature or media, and attending or participating in arts and sports events. Over half of respondents were interested or engaged in gathering with relatives from the other country, and with gathering with diaspora from their own country.

In terms of commercial or professional engagement, respondents from both countries were most active in consuming products and goods from the other country, followed by academic engagement and engaging with business counterparts. The category with lowest existing engagement related to property and investment.

Questionnaire Results – Open Questions

The questionnaire and submissions generated over one thousand separate comments, ideas and responses on the five themes the review explored, providing a rich variety of material for the review. Many contributors provided responses on more than one theme. Generally across contributions, while the largest number of comments were received for culture experience and exchange,  the most substantive and detailed comments were submitted under the theme of academic, educational and research links. Respondents also provided a number of contributions that fell outwith the remit of the joint bilateral review, and often beyond the jurisdiction and competence of either government. 

Five Themes 

  • Business and economic interests

The theme ‘business and economic interests’ received 135 thematic contributions to open questions. The questionnaire closed at the time the Covid-19 lockdown began. However, prior to this happening, most respondents identified the tourism sector as an area they expected to see the most economic growth in in the coming years. Concerns about post-Brexit trade and business collaboration also featured in responses. Contributors generally set out a strong support for sustained and improved business links between Ireland and Scotland and identified a wide range of existing and potential links to be better developed. While Tourism emerged as the theme most discussed in terms of common business development, transport was identified as a critical enabler of better business links. There was general support for the exploration of ways to develop trade and business, with specific interest in exploring a range of business co-operation and collaboration mechanisms.

  • Community and diaspora links

The theme ‘community and diaspora links’ received 202 responses to open questions. In the main, responses to this theme emphasised the strong connections established between both countries as a result of their shared history, migration flows and diaspora communities in both countries. In general there was more discussion of Irish diaspora and community events in Scotland than of Scots in Ireland. Nonetheless, there was strong support and interest in the range of events and initiatives organised by organisations and governments to forge links at local and national levels. In particular, festivals and events marking St Patrick’s Day or St Andrew’s Day were mentioned as positive experiences of community exchange, alongside the desire to find ways to recognise and respect a broad range of cultural expressions. 

  • Culture experience and exchange

This theme received 300 responses to open questions, providing rich and diverse information on the range of existing and potential collaborations between both countries. In these responses, language emerged as the strongest theme, and ‘Gaelic’, ‘Gaeilge’,Gàidhlig’, ‘Scots’, ‘Ulster-Scots’ and the phrases ‘shared language’ and ‘shared culture’ predominated. In general these responses sought the better promotion, teaching and use of these languages and were enthusiastic about their role in tourism and the arts, identifying the potential for initiatives to champion this shared heritage. Language was strongly associated with music and dance traditions, but contributors also called for the promotion of exchanges in contemporary arts and that both governments support collaborative media ventures, early-career artists and live performances in particular. Organisations such as Conradh na Gaeilge Glaschú and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann were mentioned as good exemplars of promoting language, culture and music.  Major annual events in Scotland such as Celtic Connections and the Edinburgh Festival(s) were noted for their strong presence from Ireland every year.   With regard to sport, contributions were enthusiastic about the role of rugby and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in both countries.

  • Rural, coastal and island communities

Of all the joint bilateral review themes, Rural Coastal and Island communities attracted the most connected and overlapping contributions with the other themes due to their relevance in these particular locations and communities. This theme received 134 open questions contributions, which commonly highlighted that rural and coastal communities in both countries share historical connections and similar contemporary challenges. Another unifying topic that emerged strongly in this theme was how addressing climate change was both a particular opportunity and a challenge for these communities, and that Ireland and Scotland have much to learn from each other in the areas of sustainable tourism, renewable energy and developing processes and markets in relation to agricultural and fishing produce. Across the responses on this theme, concern and uncertainty were expressed in relation to the continuation of Ireland-Scotland cooperation in various EU-funded schemes, once the Transition Period ends following the UK’s (and Scotland’s) exit from the EU.

  • Academic, educational and research links

This theme received 117 submissions to open questions from respondents, highlighting the wide range of existing collaborations and exchanges in detail. Under this theme the majority of responses expressed concern about any possibility for alteration in participation in EU-based funding once the transition period ends, and the potential impact on Scotland and on bilateral academic engagement between both countries. In discussion of the existing and potential collaborations between higher education institutions in both Scotland and Ireland, a very wide range of research interests were identified, from across the spectrum of disciplines. Contributors were enthusiastic about the potential for deeper thematic collaboration, suggesting a range of mechanisms to support this. Beyond the research environment, there was appetite to explore collaboration opportunities in the teaching and learning environments of the secondary and tertiary educations sectors more generally, and this appetite was often connected to the topics that the joint bilateral review is focusing on. Interest was also expressed in developing better bilateral connections with the policy environments in both countries to build on the already established expertise and experience.



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