Scotland, Ireland and Brexit



How is the Scottish border question tied to the Irish one?

To understand Irish politics you must first master the acronyms. In the beginning there was the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) which begat the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and now we are bedevilled by the IRC (Ireland’s Really Complicated). Like their predecessors the IRC are secretive, well organised and fanatically committed to a 32 County Republic, a 32-county-republic-of-its-all-the-Paddies-fault.

Their leadership (I am looking at you Kenny Farquharson, and you Iain Martin) are currently waging a propaganda campaign arguing that Scotland-in-the-European-Union (EU) cannot, should not, must not ‘argue’ for an Irish style-deal on the border. The problem is of course that there is no ‘Irish’ deal under discussion. Their precious bloody 32 county republic doesn’t exist and isn’t a signatory any European Treaties.

But first some history
…and history matters because the EU position will be based on their view of our history.
Back between 1918 and 1922 the old Europe broke apart: a host of new nations were born including Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and more.

Across these disputed boundaries violence flared with Poles fighting Czechs in Teschen, Germans fighting Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians around the Baltics, Irish and British and of course Transylvanian Hungarians versus Romanians.

Para-statal organisations of ex-servicemen roamed the continent dressed up in hodge-podge uniforms from daddy’s wardrobe: Freikorps, fascisti and Black & Tans. 500 died in wild killings in 1922 in the British city of Belfast alone.

As the violence dried up it left pockets of broken binational pockets, the Åland Islands, Memel, Danzig, Teschen, the Sudetenland, Süd Tyrol, eastern Poland and western Ukraine, Transylvania.

The League of Nations drew up elaborate schemes to manage minority and double minority problems. The Minorities Treaties created civic protection for national minorities who differed in nationality, race, religion or language from the majority.

These hotspots achieved prominence in the run up to the second war, the Germans driving the issue on the Sudetenland, Memel and Danzig, but both the Poles and Hungarians getting spoils at Munich and the Lithuanians getting Vilnius from the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

A lot of these issues were ‘solved’ by German murder during the war and Allied ethnic cleansing afterwards (a teacher of mine walked from Czechoslovakia to Germany as a kid).

The post-war European communities were started by people who learnt the lessons of both wars the hard way: Robert Schuman had been in the German Army in the First, and the French Resistance in the Second.

It is in this context that the current debate stands. The last land border in the EU to be settled was the British-Irish one (the sea border remains disputed).

The post-1922 history of the two states in these islands is different.

The Irish Republic and its British minority
The Irish Republic was 9% British/Protestant in 1922 — its first President was a Protestant. The British minority collapsed — only 2% of the native-born population are Protestant now, due to emigration and Ne Temere. The hundreds of thousands of UK passport holders now resident there are fully integrated.

The dominant national parties have long engaged in rhetorical irredentism but traditionally have combined that with with an iron fist and internment against actual irredentists.

The UK and its national minorities
The UK however never managed to find an adequate solution to this problem. A subordinate parliament in Belfast was set up — a clone of Westminster from benches to Hansard, to terms of address in the chamber — the full constitutional bhuna.

It failed miserably: in the trade argot “it was a cold house for Catholics”. The northern state retained an elaborate ethnic militia (the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Specials). There was a short-lived guerrilla war (which started with with burning of customs huts).

A civil rights movement sprang up as the irredentist Irish nationalists tried to dig themselves out of their own hole, and the political situation spiralled out of control with wild killings, large scale ethnic cleansing running to the high-ten-thousands as pro-British ethnic militias fought it out with pro-Irish ones. (The street muscle on the Irish side was initially provided by the Catholic Ex-Serviceman’s Association, the UVF, the UDA and the Provos had ex-British serviceman among their founders.)

Despite the same party being in power in both Stormont and Westminster, the constitution was so broken that the Westminster parliament had to abolish its child and novate its power to a Ministerial pro-consul through the ingenious mechanism of the pre-1066 old Normandy Privy Council (I blame the French, me!)
The sad litany of British political violence continued, two British Prime Minsters narrowly surviving death, a Westminster MP, Bobby Sands (who had as a kid been ethnically cleansed), starved himself to death. The UK’s leading Catholic Peer, the Duke of Norfolk, was sent on a quixotic mission to the British H-Blocks to chivvy the hunger strikers.

The Republic saw small flickers: loyalists murder gangs from north of the border committed atrocities in Monaghan and Dublin.

The Birmingham and Coventry brigades of the IRA distinguished themselves in slaughter and, horrified by their own conduct and moral vacuum, more or less collapsed.

It is to the credit of the yeoman character of the English that these were not met by counter atrocities on the resident Irish population — the torture and imprisonment of the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 notwithstanding.

By and large the Irish national minority on the larger island is well politically integrated now.

Peace at last
The failed statelet of the north was finally healed by applying all the lessons learned across Europe in the long, dark 20th Century: double-minority provisions, stable and proportional electoral systems, the abandonment of the feudal and uncollated British constitutional tradition — all embedded in a bilateral peace treaty and cemented with the banal and warm economic integration of the European Union. The Westminster model of the old Stormont has been comprehensively dismantled.

The lessons that the British political classes didn’t learn about itself in 1972 haunt it now: a lethal electoral system that throws huge intoxicating majorities on minority votes, fragile unreformed institutions and a relentless indifference to minority national rights. Westminster awaits its own constitutional reckoning.

And this is where we find ourselves
’Twas the Brits beshat the Belfast bed’ (try saying that at speed, in drink and en brogue).

Having trashed the Good Friday Agreement (an! international! treaty!), roused Enda Kenny to rhetorical irredentism (Enda! bloody! Kenny! — John Major’s more boring and milder kid brother) and snubbed the Dail, the UK seeks a special deal from the EU for the UK’s border problems in the UK’s most violent corner.

The European Union is being beseeched to make a special case for the UK to protect it from the consequences of its own actions — for all the IRC chatter there is no “Irish deal” — there has to be a British one.

So where stands the SNP on this?
Well as the ballad says “may the Lord in his mercy be kind to Belfast”. And if, as it happens, the EU makes not an agreement with the UK but the rUK, then the EU border should still be tempered by the rUK’s peculiar circumstances.

Even if the Good Friday Agreement is the League of Nations for slow learners we should not penalise the inhabitants of rUK for this setback.

The Brexiteers should concentrate on seeking the best deal from the EU for the UK’s border, the one that protects the UK’s fragile internal peace and keeps the endemic post-war political violence at bay. However things go, they won’t be firing volleys over graves in the EU.

The persistent floating of a putative double-border regime for the EU that the IRC and their shadowy minions promote is for the birds — if Scotland is a member of the EU at Brexit there will be one UK/EU border regime across both of these islands.

And Brexiteers should disabuse themselves of IKEA dreams of a smooth Nordic solution. Norway and Sweden are separated by a huge mountain range and their border is so lightly crossed that until 1967 they drove on different sides of the road.

The European Union is entirely familiar with the problems of national contestation: Armagh is as Corsica, Nice, Alsace, Pomerania, Schleswig and Holstein. They sympathise in general with this known problem and its well-kent solutions; but are wholly indifferent in the particular.

The idea that a special second-border opt-out can be finangled prior to Brexit to scare the jocks into line is absurd. Who would be the champion of this within the EU? the 26 County Republic? As one digital Roisin Dubh put it on Twitter immediately post-Brexit: “Irish national identity is 98% fuck the Brits and 2% Tayto crisps”.

What Dublin says the UK needs, Scotland and Europe will go along with — address yourselves there Brexiteers and gies peace, gies all peace. May the Lord in his mercy be kind to Belfast.


You can buy Gordon’s book ‘Winning The Second Independence Referendum: A Manifesto For Scotland In the European Union After Brexit’ here.

Comments (12)

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  1. Conor says:

    I found this a tortuous article to read.

  2. c rober says:

    I worry that the Irish do the Establishment a favour , just to continue to subsidize English jobs on Irish Exports , keeping that biased trade with England imports – just to keep the borderless Island.

    I think you have well argued why the SNP , Holyrood , shouldnt fall into the trap , where threats of implanting a Scottish hard border , means disolving the invisible one in Ireland – which would increase a decreasing West of Scotland certain demographic voting.

    IS a Irish open border worth keeping , yes – is it worth the cost of it being removed to level the playing field on Scotland not having one – well thats the question…. or is it a trap?

  3. bringiton says:

    The maniacs presently residing in Westminster have no interest in peace.
    All they want is to get out of the political union with Europe at any cost and hang the consequences.
    Don’t see anyone in the Trump administration that would perform a George
    Mitchell type roll,so it will be a shambles probably left for others to sort out,or not.
    It will all depend on how hard ball the EU wants to be with the Brexiteers and their continuing demands for opt outs for the City of London,Sunderland etc.
    Should Scotland remain within the EU,then it would be appropriate for a joint Scottish/Irish solution to the NI situation but Westminster seems determined to hang onto Scotland at all costs,so we will see.

  4. Kenny says:

    “It is to the credit of the yeoman character of the English that these were not met by counter atrocities on the resident Irish population .”

    Ummmm…have I misunderstood or are we forgetting the Bogside Massacre (and continuing immunity and anonymity for the soldiers involved), internment, RUC and British Army collaboration with the UDA to conduct political murders (most notably on Pat Finucane, but numerous others are documented) not to mention British death squads roaming the streets of Belfast with a licence to kill?

    I think the most interesting and disturbing aspect of all this is that older Tories considered the north of Ireland a key part of their identity. The “unionist” in the Conservative and Unionist Party refers to Ireland, not Scotland. Today though, they seem wholly uninterested. I don’t much like old One Nation Toryism, but at least they understood the One Nation that they identified. No-one in the whole Brexit campaign seems to have given the first thought to Ireland and its problems and even now they seem not to care. If civil war returns or if there is a vote that reunites Ireland, it will be exclusively the fault of the British nationalists in Westminster. The same is true, of course, of Scotland. All of this is down to the (unspoken) English Question – that is, the question over how the English can identify and recognise themselves as something other than a norm by which all other nations must be judged, yet without ever understanding themselves as different from their brethren in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Until that question is resolved, tensions cannot but remain high across these islands. Sadly, scant few English people and even fewer government politicians seem to even recognise that there is a question to be answered.

    1. Willie says:

      I think there is in truth a huge under reporting of the part that the UK played in the dirty war. Death squads primed and operated by the UK military are still largely unrecognised. That, in the Kitsonesque way is how the British do it when symmetrical warfare in not an option. Would they do it again, would they do it in Scotland. You bet they would and that is why there was 30 years of misery in the euphemistically called “Troubles”
      Unfinished business I fear.

  5. Alan says:

    The lessons that the British political classes didn’t learn about itself in 1972…

    Lost on political classes but not lost on the Supreme Court justices. The political classes would be advised to note the justices’ advice in Miller ruling:

    151. In reaching this conclusion we do not underestimate the importance of constitutional conventions, some of which play a fundamental role in the operation of our constitution. The Sewel Convention has an important role in facilitating harmonious relationships between the UK Parliament and the devolved legislatures.But the policing of its scope and the manner of its operation does not lie within the constitutional remit of the judiciary, which is to protect the rule of law. (emphasis added)

  6. florian albert says:

    ‘The failed statelet of the north was finally healed’

    I would not bet on that. If you read Brian Rowan’s report – Irish Times, January 23rd 2017 – on a meeting in the Felons Club in Belfast, you get a very different perspective. At this meeting, of the Republican elite and activists, there was enthusiastic support for a call to ‘bring the institutions down now.’ ie bring down Stormont Mark II.
    Republicans are concluding that the Good Friday Agreement had less for them than they thought it had a decade ago.

  7. Adam says:

    Interesting piece thanks! Irish example clearly relevant to Scotland. BTW if you want a laugh I recommend this funny piece on why the SNP supports indy

  8. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    While Mr Guthrie has written what is a well-informed piece, I am not sure I understand what he is intending to say. I think the problem is in his writing. It seems clear that he has a deep and nuanced understanding of the history, but, unfortunately, he assumes that most of the rest of us do, too. He mentions Schleswig and Holstein and I think we should recall Bismarck’s comment on the “S-H Question”, and, to be fair, he indicates this with his IRC acronym in the opening paragraph, but, sadly he does not make allowances for the gaps in the knowledge of the rest of us. Really, he ought to have done us the courtesy of being more explicit and eschewed his irony (was he being ironic), his jibes at some journalists (who are not so important to the rest of us that we read them avidly) and his use of opaque terminology in several places. I found this often when I read Tom Nairn’s books and in some of Christopher Harvie’s works.
    In persuading some of the former No voters to become YES voters, we have to appreciate that they are not ignoramuses. Many simply have neither the time nor the inclination to acquire the kind of knowledge which is tacit, underpinning Mr Guthrie’s essay. These are intelligent people, but they have other priorities and other interests. They are interested in Scotland, its future and the kind of place they want their children to grow up in. So, there needs to be a clearer explanation.
    One of my tutors at university had a maxim, that anything could be explained to anyone else, no matter their age and educational level in an intellectually honest way. He was talking in the context of pedagogy, but I think it is directly applicable here. We should be able to present the arguments for independence rigorously, but in as simple terms as the complexities allow.
    A great deal (not a majority) of the posts by supporters of independence fulminate about the narrow mindedness of ‘pensioners’, ‘people of English descent’, ‘women’, etc as if everyone within these categories believed the same as the majority or that the majority all held the opinion with equal conviction. And, these fulminations are phrased in disparaging an insulting terms. How likely is that to persuade someone to change her or his view?
    I am a ‘pensioner’, but not a ‘woman’ nor of ‘English descent’.
    The Scotland I aspire to, is one that is inclusive of all of those who live and work here. We will not all agree about everything, but, at least, we will have the opportunity to manage (or mismanage) things for ourselves

    1. Willie says:

      So what are you saying Alisdair. I actually liked Mr Guthrie’s knowledgeable and nuanced writing style. Surely you are not asking for writing ” Janet and John ” style.

  9. James Dow says:

    A united Ireland, an independent Scotland allied in all beneficial outcomes. The greater region of Celtica. So simple.

  10. Colm says:

    “The Irish Republic was 9% British/Protestant in 1922 — its first President was a Protestant.”

    I take from this that you’re assuming that in Ireland all protestants are British and that all British are protestants? If so, that’s an incredibly simplistic and uninformed idea.

    Any glance through Irish history and society will see proud Irish protestants, many of whom died for Irish freedom.

    Nationalist history is littered with them: Charles Stewart Parnell, Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmett, Roger Casement, Erskine Childers Snr. and Erskine Childers Jr. (who was president of Ireland in the 70s), Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Davis, Lord Edward Fitzgerald etc.

    The current Irish cabinet in the Dáil contains Heather Humphries and Shane Ross, a presbyterian and an anglican respectively.

    Artists such as W.B Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker certainly thought of themselves as Irish.

    The most famous trophy in Irish sport is named after Sam Maguire, a protestant Irishman.

    To carve up Ireland into “protestant=British, catholic = Irish” it’s a glaring inaccuracy.

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