The Threat of Independence
The threat of an independent Scotland to the Ulster Loyalist world view is difficult to overstate.
Quite simply Scottish independence is pretty close to an extinction level event for Ulster Loyalism.
Therefore, I was not surprised in the least by the recent story by Gerry Braiden in the Herald about the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) (‘Ulster unionists head to Scotland for indyref protest after meeting Rangers fans’).
As the journalistic euphemism in Northern Ireland has it the PUP is ‘close to the thinking of the UVF’.
Back at the time of the Good Friday Agreement certain senior British colonial officials desperately hoped that the PUP would become a mirror image of Sinn Féin within loyalist communities.
However, that scenario simply did not materialise.
Why that should be is for another time and another place, but it is undeniable that the PUP has little chance of replicating the political success of Sinn Féin.
The party leadership tried to articulate the world view of their community through the lexicon of class politics.
The current leader Billy Hutchinson was convicted of the murder of Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan in October 1974.
These killings were claimed by the UVF and once inside prison Hutchinson was part of their structures.
In October 2011 Billy Hutchinson was elected party leader, taking over from Brian Ervine.
In December 2012 the PUP leader was central to organising the flag protests in Belfast.
This was a long way from the fine words on the steps of Stormont during the Good Friday Agreement talks.
It is important to point out that Scotland has always carried a far greater cultural weight in the North East of Ireland than vice versa.
Given that many Scots feel that they themselves are on the periphery of a London state that didn’t consider them then it is sometimes easy to forget that for many people in Ireland Scotland is seen as a source of heritage as well as a neighbour.
Generally speaking people of the nationalist tradition in Ireland, North and South, are favourable to Scottish independence.
It fits in with their world view that small countries should be autonomous and not some province of a larger neighbour.
Since the IndyRef became news here in the Republic of Ireland the general consensus that I have picked up is that if the Scots decide they’ve had enough of being in the United Kingdom then good on them and welcome to the family of free nations!
However within the Unionist tradition there is something approaching panic at the possibility of Scotland being a separate country.
The conflict in Northern Ireland was always more about competing national identities as about a religious clash simpliciter.
The recent flag protests across Northern Ireland are clear evidence how powerful the symbols of the British state are in loyalist communities.
For places like Mount Vernon in Belfast the idea of Mount Vernon in Glasgow being in another state is nothing less than an existential threat to their Britishness.
It is even more perplexing that the advocates of this ethnic extinguishing are people that the Ulster Loyalist would see as being their kith and kin.
Quite simply, in Shankill speak, Alex Salmond isn’t a Fenian and that compounds their problem.
In the simplistic world view of Ulster Loyalism a ‘Scotchman’ reared in the reformed faith should be an ardent British unionist and empire loyalist.
Clearly Scotland’s First Minister is not in favour of the United Kingdom remaining unchanged and he wants his country, Scotland, to have a seat at the United Nations.
If he succeeds then it will be, of course, the biggest geo-political change in these islands since 1922 when Northern Ireland was created after the secession of the 26 county area from London rule.
It is clear that when it comes to Scotland’s Claim of Right Ulster says “NO”!
The document signed on 30th March 1989 is my benchmark for this debate.
The people of Scotland have the right to national self-determination.
I am not surprised that the Ulster Loyalists have an issue with that despite their over-identification with the Scottish Lowland culture of their imagination.
Next year is the centenary of the Larne gun running and the arming of the original UVF.
Their raison d’être was to prevent national self-determination of the Irish people as a whole.
The UVF were willing to take up arms against the British crown even to prevent limited self-government being given to an all-island legislature in Dublin.
This treasonable stance was never punished and it authorised the increasing militarisation of Irish nationalism which culminated in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Attempted interventions in Scottish politics by Ulster Loyalists are not new.
The opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 (which gave the Republic of Ireland a sort of consular role for Northern Ireland Catholics and a permanent base of civil servants at Hillsborough) was led by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The Ulster unionist community saw the agreement as the first step on the way to a united Ireland and subsequently they wished to punish the ruling Tory Party.
The Scottish Unionist Party was established with the express aim of toppling Tory MPs in Scotland in targeted seats in the 1987 General Election.
In the end the party didn’t field any candidates the strength of the ground just wasn’t there.
The Scottish Unionist Party was a DUP creation and very much a Peter Robinson project.
This was when the First Minister of Northern Ireland was in his street warrior phase.
On 7 August 1986 Robinson led a mob of 500 loyalists to attack the unmanned Garda station at Clontibret County Monaghan
He pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly and was fined IR£17500 in a Drogheda court to escape a prison sentence
In November 1986 he spoke at the Ulster Hall and launched the ‘Ulster Resistance’.
Complete with red berets the paramilitary nature of the new movement was undeniable.
The Ulster Resistance with both the UDA and UVF to bring in arms from South Africa; this illegal importation was facilitated by MI5.
At a rally in Enniskillen, Peter Robinson announced;
“‘Thousands have already joined the movement and the task of shaping them into an effective force is continuing. The Resistance has indicated that drilling and training has already started. The officers of the nine divisions have taken up their duties.”
In Ulster’s hour of need it was cultural common sense that their brethren in Scotland would be steadfast in vouchsafing the Britishness of the Northern Irish Protestant.
The idea that Scots didn’t want to be part of the union is the stuff of nightmares for people like Robinson.
Now Scottish independence is a distinct possibility it is, once more, crisis time for Ulster Loyalism.
Around the same time as Peter Robinson was in Ulster Resistance I wrote a piece for the Herald and styled that in the extreme end of the Rangers support there was a potentially fatal pathogen in any push for Scottish freedom.
The piece “Clan Ibrox is Scotland’s Trojan horse” (Herald) looked to the day when the forces of unionism in Scotland were under threat and needed to mobilise foot soldiers.
The demise of Rangers last summer rather damaged that thesis as the Ibrox chaps completely failed to mobilise Manchester sized numbers to save their club.
The PUP itself is in crisis.
The tragic death of party leader David Ervine and then the resignation of Dawn Purvis in June 2010 over the murder of Bobby Moffett have left the once small, but impressive loyalist party looking cut adrift from the mainstream.
The PUP’s aim in the Ervine days was always to replicate the success of Sinn Féin within their own community.
However they never did dislodge the influence of Orangeism and subsequently that of the DUP.
When Peter Robinson had his family troubles with ‘Irisgate’ it was the Alliance party and Naomi Long that unseated the First Minster from his Westminster seat and not the PUP.
Moreover, a Loyalist ‘super grass’ trial threatens to wreak havoc within the structure of the UVF.
So these are difficult times on several levels for the people engaged in erudite analysis with the Vanguard Bears chaps.
Ulster may still say ‘NO’, but it will matter little if Scotland says ‘YES’.
The PUP know that hence this recent play.
Despite attempts within the broader loyalist community to manufacture a somewhat ersatz ethnicity this is still a tradition thirled to institutions; the UK, the monarchy.
Scottish independence clearly changes the former if not the latter.
For Loyalism their union would be compromised.
A Sinn Féin mantra throughout the Good Friday Agreement negotiations was ‘parity of esteem’.
Republicans knew that if there was a level playing field apropos both traditions in terms of respect then loyalism-long term- was finished.
This lexicon has been for some time adopted by loyalism who style themselves unloved and disregarded within a new Northern Ireland where nationalists get preference.
What is certainly true is that the old Orange State that Michael Farrell wrote about at the start of the Civil Rights Movement is gone and it isn’t coming back.
There is a certain White Trash grieving going on about Uppity Fenians in Northern Ireland.
This isn’t felt by the middle class unionist.
However there is a perceived loss of status among working class loyalists.
The educational attainment, especially by young males, in these communities is among the lowest in the UK.
The days of guaranteed industrial employment is gone and a reappraisal of the value of education has not yet taken place within loyalist communities.
In a meritocratic knowledge based economy the descendants of triumphalist shipyard workers have social failure imprinted on them by their belief system.
It is here in these failing communities where the PUP have their meagre electoral strength.
The polls indicate that the loyalist people of Northern Ireland have little to worry about.
However, the very thought that it MIGHT happen is enough for the PUP to be engaging in a crisis think in with the erudite policy wonks at Vanguard Bears.
It is ironic that the people within these islands who make most of their Scottish ancestry are most alarmed at the idea of Scots being sovereign.
It really is beyond parody.
Phil Mac Giolla Bháin is an author, blogger and journalist in Ireland. His latest book ‘Minority Reporter: Scotland’s bad attitude to her own Irish’ will be published in July by Frontline Noir.