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Scottish independence: the view from Belfast

How might the Scottish constitutional debate affect politics in Northern Ireland?

Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness (R) speaks to the media as Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams (L) looks on. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin McGuinness’s meeting with the Queen in Belfast this week raised concerns among some Sinn Fein supporters that there has been a softening in the attitudes of the Irish republican leadership to Britain and the institutions of the British state. In fact, McGuinness’s decision probably had more to do with politics in the Irish Republic, where his party was heavily criticised for boycotting Elizabeth II’s visit to Dublin last year, than anything else. At any rate, McGuinness himself seemed keen to dispel any doubts. When asked by a journalist how he thought the meeting had gone, he replied, “It went well. I’m still a republican”.

In Scotland, the SNP’s current policy of keeping the Queen as head of state after independence illustrates the cultural gulf which exists between the two nationalist movements either side of the Irish sea. But that’s not to say they exist in isolation from one another. On the contrary, the Scottish constitutional debate is being watched with great interest by politicians across Ulster. So how might Scottish independence - or the threat of Scottish independence - affect the political situation in Northern Ireland?

To begin with, it seems unlikely that the break-up of the Anglo-Scottish Union would bring Sinn Fein’s dream of a united Ireland any closer to realisation. Despite its being the largest nationalist party at the Stormont Assembly for nearly a decade and steadily increasing its share of the vote at Irish parliamentary elections, support for a 32-county Ireland remains remarkably low. The most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, an authoritative account of political attitudes in the north, shows that 73 per cent of the Ulster electorate as a whole wants to remain part of the UK, with 52 per cent of Catholic voters content to maintain the union with Britain. (The figure for Protestants is 96 per cent.)  A number of factors have eroded republican sentiment in recent years: economic crisis and austerity in the south, the growing indifference of the Dublin political class to the all-Ireland project, the emergence of a northern Catholic middle-class, much of which is employed in a public sector widely assumed to be dependent on British state subsidies.
 
Peter Geoghegan, the Irish editor of Edinburgh-based current affairs magazine Political Insight, thinks the advent of Scottish independence won’t act as a catalyst for Irish reunification but could bring fresh life to the debate about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. “The Belfast Agreement is basically a holding position,” he says, “a settlement which will stand until a majority doesn’t want it to stand anymore and we get something else. Despite some procedural problems at Stormont, that idea has held pretty stable for the last ten years. But what’s happening in Scotland has the potential, in the long-run, to change that - to provoke a debate about where Northern Ireland is going which has been silent for too long.”
 
Sinn Fein keeps quiet on the issue of Scottish self-determination, but privately its leadership is thinking along similar lines. Earlier this year, McGuinness announced plans to hold a vote on Irish reunification at some point during the next Assembly session, possibly as soon as 2016. Geoghegan explains this as part of a broader strategy to reinvigorate the republican movement in Ireland: “Both emboldened and envious of the SNP’s recent success, Sinn Fein wants to capitalise on the new, more fluid approach towards the UK’s constitutional arrangements by putting the issue of Irish unity firmly on the political agenda…That’s the driving logic.”
 
McGuinness’s announcement also represents a nod to the more radical elements in the republican community, who claim Sinn Fein has compromised too much with the forces of unionism in the last decade. The persistence of armed splinter groups like the Real IRA suggests a hard-core of republican activists angry at the party’s apparent drift into the mainstream. As the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising approaches, their demands for more progress towards a united Ireland are likely to grow louder and louder.
 
Intriguingly, it is in this context that Scottish independence could have the greatest impact on Irish and Northern Irish politics. By showing how democratic and parliamentary means can be used to secure sweeping constitutional change, nationalism in Scotland could help finish off the last remnants of republican paramilitarism. Owen Dudley Edwards, an Irish-born Edinburgh historian, elaborates this idea: “Sinn Fein’s nationalism is completely and absolutely different from the SNP’s - it’s the difference between a nationalism which has evolved constitutionally and a nationalism which has evolved from the gun. Nonetheless, the success of constitutional nationalism in Scotland would echo all over the world as an example of the effectiveness of non-violence. The tradition says that St Patrick came from Scotland to civilise the Irish, and I’m perfectly happy to welcome St Alex Salmond from Scotland to civilise us Irish again.”
 
If the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK excites the republican imagination, it haunts the unionist one - or parts of it at least. In January, Tom Elliot, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) - until 2003 the dominant unionist party in Northern Ireland - launched a highly charged attack on the SNP, accusing Alex Salmond of “posing a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA”. This was followed shortly after by an equally provocative intervention from one of Elliot’s predecessors, Lord Empey, who warned that Scottish secession could push Ulster back into conflict: “I don't wish to exaggerate,” he said, “but if the Scottish nationalists were to succeed it could possibly reignite the difficulties we have just managed to overcome.” These were appropriate sentiments from a party now married to the British Conservatives.

But Mike Nesbitt, Elliot’s successor as UUP leader, seems less agitated by the advance of Scottish nationalism. Speaking to the New Statesman shortly before he was elected in March, he dismissed the notion that victory for the SNP in the 2014 referendum could spark a return to the Troubles: “I think we’re settled. We’ve been through 40 years of needless violence, we’ve lost 3,500 lives, for no good reason. In 2007 all the political parties came to this (power-sharing) project ready to do a deal together. So these institutions are here to stay, and we will not be taking a backward step.” Nesbitt added that during a prolonged economic downturn, Scotland’s constitutional status is not likely to rank high on the list of priorities for working-class loyalist communities: “The loyalist elements in this country are pretty focused on looking at what happens here … I don’t think they have a particular focus on whether Scotland goes for devo-max or goes for independence - they’re concerned about day-to-day living, which is not easy.”

Yet the dissolution of the Union between Scotland and England might force Northern Irish unionists to reconsider their relationship with the rest of the UK. After all, it is to Scotland - not England or Wales - that many of them feel the greatest religious and cultural affinity. If Scotland strikes out on its own, with whom (or what) would they be in union?

Dudley Edwards believes Scottish independence has the potential to aggravate the separatist streak in Paisleyite unionism which has lain dormant in recent years: “Objectively speaking there was always an assumption in Paisleyism that maybe someday Northern Ireland might find it better to go independent. Paisley himself detested the liberalism and liberality of English life. London can look a very hedonistic society and when he went to Westminster in 1970 it was Sodom and Gomorrah, so from time to time he has uttered statements about Ulster possibly going it alone. In this sense, Ulster might look more attractive outside a UK without Scotland.”

Not that separation is a realistic political (or probably economic) option for the Six Counties: support for Northern Irish independence registers in the single digits. But were it to stay part of a truncated UK, ties between Belfast and Westminster could grow increasingly strained, particularly if Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party consolidates its control of unionism’s electoral landscape.

This is how Barry McElduff, Sinn Fein Assembly Member for West Tyrone, sees things playing out. He anticipates that Scottish independence would relegate Northern Ireland (together with Wales) to the status of poor relation in a multinational partnership defined almost exclusively by English majority interests. “If Scotland breaks away from the Union, then the Union is no longer what it was,” he told the New Statesman in a meeting at Stormont in February. “Will we be in a union with London? Even for unionists that’s not a very attractive proposition because in any partnership with London your needs will be always be very peripheral.” In fact, McElduff thinks the Scottish constitutional debate is already provoking a crisis of identity in Ulster unionism: “All the old certainties are gone. The notion of a union between England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland is disappearing. WB Yeats wrote a poem about Easter 1916 and he used the phrase ‘Everything has changed, changed utterly’. I think Scotland has changed, changed utterly. And the destination of this new journey is completely unknown. As a result the unionists are suffering greatly.”

In one sense McElduff is absolutely right: Scottish political culture is evolving rapidly and in unpredictable ways. It remains to be seen to what extent Northern Ireland and the other component parts of the United Kingdom will evolve along with it - or, as may be the case, without it.