The Irish Dimension
Two weeks ago the SNP held their annual conference in Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands. We, in Ireland were busy ripping each other to shreds over a Presidential election and it passed completely under the radar of our hapless media. At that conference, the party’s first since their landslide election win in May, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader, told delegates: “No politician, and certainly no London politician, will determine the future of the Scottish nation. The people of Scotland – the sovereign people of Scotland – are now in the driving seat.” With support for Scottish independence now hovering around 50% and a referendum on independence due within five years, we in Ireland need to start to thinking about the constitutional implications of this event on our own country.
We all know that since Finn McCool’s day Ireland and Scotland have had a ‘special relationship’. Even still, my personal support for Scottish independence, in itself, doesn’t go much beyond the hazy hope that any country who wants to stand alone in the world should be supported over imperialism. My real interest in the matter and what is honestly of most interest to Irish nationalists and unionists alike is the upshot for the constitutional position NI. For me, as an Irish nationalist, I see the break-up of the United Kingdom as a weakening of the union still further and therefore would regard Scots independence as a good thing. Irish unionists obviously wish the opposite.
As outside factors overtake us in Ireland in a post-crash world, entrenched assumptions held across the political spectrum, like the need for the United Kingdom, are going to change, fast. Scottish independence might well not be all that far away and the fall-out might give us the window in Ireland to apply our own solution to our own interminable goal for independence.
I’ll admit that I have never understood fully the complex and often contradictory claims of identity that groups of Irish unionists have promoted. I’m sure though that ever since the creation of NI they have been paranoid, seeking comfort from the security blanket of Union Jacks and other such labels and paraphernalia (no different from southern nationalists they would argue, with a degree of plausibility). Recently, NI unionists have taken on an Ulster-Scots identity to differentiate from the ‘native’ Irish population and create a culture, and an independent Scotland would certainly erode that. Whether they have a genuine affinity with Scotland or are just using that identity for their own ends is an open question. Like everything else, it’s probably a bit of both. Either way, I also have no doubt that that contradiction and confusion would be deepened should Scotland gain independence. It would cause a crisis in identity for many ‘Ulster-Scots’ who link that (developing) identity with the Union.
Or is it the case that Irish unionists, who use their Scottish ancestry as the reason for supporting the union, would simply find another reason? Indeed one suspects that many would develop an Ulster-Klingon identity to avoid reunification or any meaningful constitutional relationship with Dublin.
Anyway, if the Scots broke away from the Union, it would be a knock to Ulster unionist morale and combined with the growing influence of Sinn Féin, north and south, unionists would feel like they were, “caught in a constitutional pincer movement pushing them inexorably out of the Union” (Henry McDonald, Belfast Telegraph, 18th October 2011, http://goo.gl/8a7GS).
I think it is safe to assume that in the event of Scotland declaring its independence, the situation in Northern Ireland would certainly be destabilised. The unionist attitude is one of identification with Britain and Britishness (its very raison d’être in fact) and the British state would have ceased to exist.
Much as desperate unionists will try to portray it, I certainly do not agree that it would be the same as when we (the south of Ireland) left the Union in 1922. We were not essential to the survival of the Union in Great Britain. But should Scotland declare independence, there is only a rump union of debatable viability. For a start, their flag, the Union Jack, would become obsolete.
Ideally in a post-Britain scenario Irish unionists would probably like to develop a union with Edinburgh. But, what I don’t think they fully get is that, if Scotland breaks away, NI is likely to become a matter of, at best, absolute indifference to pretty much everyone in the UK, barring perhaps parts of Glasgow. I think they also underestimate in a post-Scotland UK that Mummy England will care less and less about them, having more than enough to worry about herself.
In my opinion, there is no way Scotland would achieve her independence only to consider a re-union with NI post-break up of the UK. I know of no Scottish nationalist who would support such a move, despite their affection for Ireland, north and south. Suddenly, Northern Ireland is a constitutional Nobody’s Child.
No matter how some will spin it, the independence of Scotland would be the end of Britain and a not unlikely development is the break up of all its competent parts, with a rise in English nationalism leading to a desire to jettison parts of Britain that they see themselves paying for. I would be slow to underestimate English nationalism, particularly the nasty strain that attracts people to the BNP. But hey, that’s their problem! Let us remember that when the USSR broke up, Russia wasn’t the last to proclaim independence – it was little Belarus. If it comes down to a motley crew of English, Welsh and partitioned Irish, it may well be the English who will secede.
Here’s a hypothetical, what if Scotland were to declare independence – England and Wales would declare a two country UK renamed the United Kingdom of England and Wales. Northern Ireland would face a make-your-mind-up-time, independence or unification. At the moment, there is no push for an independent Northern Ireland, like in Scotland, while there most definitely is for a united Ireland (or something approaching that).
It’s conceivable that, to avoid limbo, when/if independence is ruled out, they insist on a regional assembly and an expansion of the powers and responsibilities of the British-Irish Council. They may also push for Ireland to join the British Commonwealth. At that point, it’ll be up to the rest of Ireland to decide.