The Radical Independence Campaign could win over the "missing million"

The movement's message of "Scotland for the people" offers the best chance of winning over those alienated from politics.

Alex Salmond lanched the White Paper on independence at a glitzy press event in Glasgow this morning, beginning a canny air war that has already enraged the unionists. But while political junkies are glued to the live coverage, forces on the ground that could ultimately determine the referendum are mobilising.

Crucial to this ground war is the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). They are a motley army of socialists, anarchists, greens, trade unionists and radicals of all stripes. On Saturday, I joined them as over a thousand rallied in Glasgow's Marriott Hotel to share ideas and flesh out their strategy to "take Scotland back for the people". 

The pro-Union campaign Better Together has described RIC as "the true face of independence." Far from a compliment, this is meant to tarnish the SNP, painting them as secret radicals. In the eyes of the unionists, RIC are nothing more than a bunch of lefty loonies determined to ditch the Queen, the pound and Nato membership in favour of building a socialist republic. In fact, they exist outside of the party and the official Yes campaign. Which is why it is astounding that in the space of a year they have built up such a strong following. Run on a shoestring by a small group of young activists, they have also managed to open local branches across Scotland, from the Highlands to the borders.

On Saturday, the campaign launched a rousing declaration of intent. It ends with the call for "a Scotland of the Common Weal, of shared wealth and shared wellbeing. Our Scotland. All of us first." The all-day conference was crammed with debate on how to build a new green economy, claim the oil wealth for the public and bolster the welfare state. The Common Weal initiative, referred to in the declaration, gives substance to their vision of a fairer, more equal Scotland with policy proposals for a high-wage, high-tax economy.

The Radical Independence Campaign is easily dismissed as utopian. But this misses the point. While they will not achieve their objectives, RIC may play a pivotal role in convincing voters that the independence movement is on the side of the common people. On Saturday, Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation called the referendum "a class conflict". He said "the rich are voting No", while those suffering under austerity are more likely to place their hopes in an alternative future.

The hope versus fear argument is also designed to reach out to the young. It's no surprise that the SNP made giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote a priority. For many young people in Scotland, growing up within the Union looks like a bleak prospect. Next year they will choose between strengthening the powers of a nation that offers them free education and a London government set to strip benefits from under-25s. They look to those implementing the cuts and see a Tory government for whom the Scottish never voted.

Take the story of Liam McLaughlin, a campaign activist. Liam is 17 years old and grew up in Easterhouse, one of the most deprived areas in Scotland. For him, the referendum boils down to an essential question: "is this the best that we can do?" On Saturday, he spoke about how the campaign can "plant the seed" in the minds of young people. He is helping to set up a Scotland-wide school students network to persuade first-time voters that an independent Scotland can do better. According to RIC, door-to-door campaigning in Easterhouse this month found not one resident in favour of staying in the UK.

The problem is getting these people to vote. Will the independence movement reach the "missing million", those habitual non-voters that are so often the elusive pot of gold for political parties? Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, believes so. "The UK's political culture is dead on its feet" he argued, while in contrast "this is the most inspiring and creative period," he said he could remember in Scottish politics. It is this civil awakening, outside of the SNP party structures, that has a chance at convincing those disaffected with politics. The Radical Independence Campaign’s strident message of "Scotland for the people" is more persuasive than debate on the ins and outs of corporation tax levels. The National Collective, who organised the after party on Saturday, will also prove important in getting the word out. As a loose network of artists and musicians for independence, they are spreading the message to Scots who may not trust campaigners or politicians.

When the SNP won the Scottish parliament back in 2011, it came as a shock to the political and media elite. The system was supposed to be geared to stop that majority from happening. I would not be surprised if another shock is around the corner. At least, for those who weren’t at Saturday’s conference. It ended with Cat Boyd, one of the most committed organisers, quoting the trade union activist Jimmy Reid: "The untapped potential of our north sea oil is nothing compared to the untapped potential of our people." Every one of the thousand participants on Saturday was urged to put boots on the ground, go door to door and reach the "missing million" of Scotland in the coming year. The Better Together campaign can only dream of bringing that number of activists together, let alone with that level of commitment and energy.

Outside the conference hall in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, 30 per cent of homes are jobless. These people have little faith in the political system to change their lot. But this is no ordinary vote. If apathetic and disillusioned citizens can be persuaded that an independent Scotland will bring real change to their lives, it isn’t even a question. Scotland will vote yes, with a mandate from the missing million.

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and front page editor at openDemocracy

Radical Independence paraphernalia and leaflets on display at its conference on November 23, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and front page editor at openDemocracy

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.