THE irony meter shot into overload this week when Rishi Sunak ramped up the hyperbole over a revised post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.

On the one hand, he hailed the deal as making Northern Ireland “the world’s most exciting economic zone”. Why? Because it gives the province access to the EU market AND the British.

The more eagle-eyed readers will spot this is exactly the deal Scotland wanted – and was denied – when we were pulled out of Europe against our wishes.

It was hardly surprising that in 2016, Nicola Surgeon’s entirely accurate claim that Westminster had no mandate to drag Scotland into the Brexit mess against its wishes was dismissed.

Scotland’s best interests have been completely ignored by the Conservative government since the 2016 EU referendum, which saw England and Wales vote to leave and Scotland vote 62% to 28% to remain in the EU.

That was a pretty compelling indication of Scotland’s opinion – yet it has not influenced the UK Parliament’s actions one iota.

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The Scottish Government put forward compromise after compromise, including pretty much the exact deal as the Northern Ireland arrangement revealed by Prime Minister Sunak this week to much acclaim.

The same deal for Scotland was ridiculed by Westminster – when it was not ignoring the whole suggestion. There were precisely no meaningful discussions with Holyrood arranged by Westminster in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, and none have taken place since.

Brexit has been the predictable mess and Scotland has suffered disproportionately worse than those areas which voted to leave.

The figures have been available for some time but they continue to beggar belief.

A report in this newspaper towards the end of last year showed how Brexit had reversed strong growth in Scottish exports to EU countries recorded between 2018 and 2019 when Brexit was “done”.

During that period, those exports had risen by £420 million. In the two years after 2019, they crashed by £2.2 billion, from 16.7bn to £14.5bn.

Things haven’t got much better since. The president of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland warned its annual conference last week that Brexit chaos could “write off” the Scottish farming industry.

According to a senior Bank of England official, the UK has lost £29bn in investment because we left the EU – but Business for Scotland says that the picture is proportionately much worse in Scotland because our exports are double per head than the UK average and Scotland suffered far worse from the loss of seasonal workers.

But the bewilderingly quick succession of British prime ministers since Brexit have been far less interested in levelling the playing field for the Scottish economy than in ensuring powers being repatriated from Europe go to Westminster rather than Holyrood.

Scotland, of course, wasn’t the only constituent part of the UK to vote against leaving Europe. Northern Ireland also voted to Remain, by almost 56% to 44%.

But while the UK Parliament was happy to dragoon Scotland into leaving the EU, it feared doing the same to Northern Ireland would mean a hard border with Ireland and threaten hard-won political stability.

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The only problem was that Boris Johnson’s solution to that problem – the Northern Ireland Protocol – was inept (surprise surprise), unpopular with Conservatives and unworkable.

Hence its replacement with the “Westminster Framework” which gives Northern Ireland exactly the deal Scotland wanted but continues to be denied. That would have been a bitter pill for Scotland to swallow without Sunak extolling the benefits of the deal in glowing terms.

After all, if Northern Ireland will be the envy of the world because it has access to both EU and UK markets, why can’t Scotland – which also voted to remain in the EU – have that same access?

In fact, come to think of it, why did the UK rob itself of that access to European markets which Sunak depicts as such an advantage?

The penny is slowly beginning to drop with even Tory supporters. When challenged by an audience member on Wednesday night’s BBC Debate Night to say what she thought was one good thing about Scotland’s departure from the EU, Tory MSP Roz McCall simply held her hands up and admitted she “had difficulty” picking anything out.

That is the understatement of the decade. Even those who forced Brexit upon us cannot think of one good thing to say about it.

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There is a reason for that. The case for Brexit is a political myth conjured out of thin air to justify a toxic, xenophobic and racist political philosophy entirely alien to Scotland. It forced upon us a changed relationship with our European neighbours, one with obviously and predictably disastrous consequences for our economy.

Now that those consequences are upon us – with results proving even more damaging than even the worst predictions suggested – we are being taunted by those who inflicted these horrors on us now excluding us from a deal which allows access to Europe which will be the “envy of the world”.

There are no words which adequately capture the insanity of this situation. And yet support for independence is not yet at levels which would make a referendum impossible to refuse.

The Labour Party at Westminster have found themselves unable to formulate any coherent critique of Brexit and has ruled out a return to the EU. And yet there remains in Scotland some reluctance to take the only step guaranteed to fix the mess engulfing our economy.

The job of increasing that support and finding a route to independence will fall to one of the three candidates now undergoing a series of hustings all over the country.

It is no small task.

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The arguments are still taking place so it is not yet the time to pontificate on the relative merits of each candidate’s stance, although there are obvious demerits in some of the statements made so far.

All of them grapple with the central question facing supporters of independence: How do we achieve our ambition if the mechanism for doing so remains in the hands of our opponents?

The different answers quite rightly involve growing support for Scottish independence to consistent levels which make a refusal to countenance a referendum (or independence itself) unsustainable.

While the result of the leadership hustings is hugely important – even central – to the journey towards independence it’s good to see the debate grow to include the role of the wider movement.

And just as the SNP consider who is worthy of becoming their leader, that wider movement is at least starting to think about how it can play its role.

Just as we are not going to achieve independence without the SNP, we are not going to grow support for independence without the hard work of grassroots activists.

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The relationship between the party and the movement has not, for various reasons, been as effective as it might have been.

There are many important questions being thrown up by the SNP leadership contest – not least of them is a better understanding of the true nature of the party itself. In the midst of that discussion, there should be space for discussion on improving that relationship.

The denial of Scotland’s case for a better Brexit deal isn’t just another example of Westminster intransigence – it’s evidence that Scotland can never get what it needs while it remains within the Union.

To convince the Scottish people of that case will take the best possible leader of the SNP and a united effort involving the whole Yes movement.

Let’s take the opportunity of forging that partnership afresh.