ANALYSES

Scottish Independence and a More Stable Northern Ireland?

Interview
18 septembre 2014
Le point de vue de Robert Hanratty
“From an Irish perspective I wonder what a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum would mean for my country and the peace process there. I am surprised by the course of feeling in Scotland over the last 18 months and I never imagined that a week before the vote Alex Salmond would be on the cusp of achieving his aspiration of creating an independent nation in Scotland. I thought the Scottish debate would raise some probing social and economic questions to be debated with some seriousness but ultimately strangled like Nick Clegg’s proportional representation cause was.

The silence from Dublin has remained intact, with not a single opinion expressed in political terms about what Scottish secession would mean for Ireland. The Irish government I understand fears being seen to meddle in British internal affairs, especially if it would alienate them from either side following the referendum. Australian PM Tony Abbot intervened that a Yes vote ‘would not be in the interest of the international community’ and was widely criticized for doing so. When it comes to the break up of the UK, however, Ireland is not a disinterested foreign nation in the same way as Australia is. At the moment there are two possible eventualities. First, independence is passed and the UK continues without Scotland, or second, independence is rejected but a much greater level of devolved power is given to Scotland. Either eventuality would shake up the political settlement in Northern Ireland, perhaps by increasing the calls for secession from Irish nationalists or at least a level or devolution to match that of Scotland.

Unionist parties in Northern Ireland are understandably concerned. Reported by the Belfast Newsletter last week, First Minister Peter Robinson said, ‘Perhaps amongst the four countries that make up the UK, the strongest binds exist between Northern Ireland and Scotland’. He continued that ‘the movements of people from north east Ireland to Scotland have taken place well before the creation of our unitary British state’ and that to lose such a ‘family member with whom we have so much in common would be a tragedy’. Recently on a bus to Belfast I sat beside a gentleman, who for forty minutes described to me his disappointment at the prospect of Scottish independence and his dearly held Ulster Scots heritage. His Unionist fondness was certainly more Edinburgh than London focused.

This sentimental appeal to broad unionism in each country comprising the UK is an important aspect that the No campaign has lacked in an independence debate that has verged on tit-for-tat rhetoric of Scotland versus England (aka Westminster elite). Only in the last number of days has a passionate pro-union expression appeared by way of a joint campaigning visit to Scotland of the leaders of the three major parties at Westminster. A dispassionate approach also prevailed in the two debates between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond. Darling is widely acclaimed to have been the victor in round one, but for me his victory was on the wrong terms. Specifically, he distilled the prospect of nationhood to simple and vulgar economics, to how better or worse off Scots would be monetarily after independence. In contrast Salmond described an aspiration of social justice and inclusion, the economics of which was merely transactional rather than an end in itself.

In Northern Ireland the threat of dissident republican attack has been ever-present for the past several years. Indeed, I met the unionist gentleman described above on a bus we were transferred to because an explosive device had been found on the railway line between Lisburn and Belfast. In recent years there have been a host of attacks on PSNI barracks and catholic members of the force have been killed. In April 2012 a 600-pound bomb was found in a van outside Newry, Co. Down, which according to Chief Superintendent Alasdair Robinson would have killed anyone within fifty meters had it exploded.

Independence for Scotland, according to Ian Paisley Jr. ‘would encourage Irish] nationalists, who in Ireland have been violent in the past, to up the ante again and think that they can [pull and wrestle Northern Ireland from the union also.’ For Paisley, thus, an Independent Scotland would give succour to violent nationalists to continue a militant agenda. I don’t think that view is correct. In fact the opposite must surely be true. By achieving independence via the ballot box Alex Salmond would undercut the foundation of militant nationalism in the north of Ireland and bolster support for republicans that have aligned themselves with the political process of uniting Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement. Republicans in Ireland must be looking with incredulity at how comparatively easily Salmond has steered Scotland to the door of independence. Whatever way the vote goes he will have demonstrated the validity of the political process and the futility of recourse to arms.

Secondly, Scottish independence would remove from Northern Irish Unionism the cultural element it most readily identifies with, and therefore force unionists to re-evaluate their own position vis-à-vis the Republic of Ireland, England and Wales. Tipping the finely balanced political situation in Northern Ireland in either direction could result in recrimination from the Unionist side but it is unclear where any possible reprisals would be directed. Sinn Féin has refused to be drawn on the Scottish issue and could not be accused of interference. In stark terms Scotland would be eroding Unionism from within, a brutal fact that Northern Irish Unionist parties would have to come to terms with. Moreover, it is not at all clear that Northern Irish unionists would readily row in with an agenda dominated by the Conservative party in England. This was most apparent in 2010 when former UUP MP Sylvia Hermon decided to resign from the Party rather than continue within the electoral pact agreed with the Conservatives. An ‘English’ shift to the Right at Westminster following Scottish independence would alienate liberal unionists in Northern Ireland and enforce the necessity of making the devolved institutions at Stormont succeed. Perhaps Alex Salmond’s aspiration, if achieved, would have a positively stabilising impact in Northern Ireland politics.”