What would the reaction be if it was Northern Ireland or Wales rather than Scotland facing a referendum next month about quitting the UK? Would our political leaders be cancelling their holidays, trudging the highways and byways, desperately trying to convince people there to stay?
Of course, the prospect of the Welsh opting for full-blown independence is so remote as to be purely academic. Indeed, the referendum on the creation of the Welsh Assembly was passed by the slenderest of margins back in 1998 (50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent). If a few thousand votes had gone the other way, Wales would still be run from Whitehall.
Yet if there was a sudden surge in nationalist sentiment sometime in the future it is hard to imagine the rest of the UK being overly perturbed. Wales – without oil and nuclear submarine bases – is simply of less strategic importance to the UK than Scotland.
Northern Ireland, in contrast, is of no strategic importance whatsoever. This was enunciated as the British government’s view as far back as November 1990 when then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brook proclaimed that Britain had “no selfish, strategic or economic interest” in the place.
“The principle of consent” has been the fig leaf for successive governments ever since. As long as the majority of people want to remain part of Britain, this wish will be upheld. Of course, this is hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo. No one in British politics seems to care about making the case that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK, as they are happy to do with Scotland. (Indeed, threats to the status of Gibraltar or the Falklands elicit more muscular responses).
The Good Friday Agreement effectively placed Northern Ireland in an ante-chamber. If there is a majority that opts for Irish unity at some stage, then change will take place. No one is making a first principles argument for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK. Indeed, nowhere else in British politics are our political leaders so sanguine about sovereignty. Where Scotland is seen to be an opportunity worth holding on to, Northern Ireland is quietly regarded as a problem eventually worth jettisoning.
Scottish and Welsh elites in politics, business and culture are deeply integrated into British public life. In contrast, Northern Ireland’s idiosyncratic political class finds few soul mates in Westminster. Unionist politicians – more British than the British – are now oddities in our political system. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson’s recent defence of an evangelical pastor who described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic” (not to mention his wife’s remarks about homosexuality) mean that unionist politics can now seem like something from a different planet. Not to mention the double standard. If Robinson had been a minister, a frontbencher or leader of a council in Britain, then he would have been out on his ear.
The Britain that Unionists claim kinship with is long gone. The only reason Northern Ireland’s status is not more openly questioned is down to inertia; a relief that the Troubles are over. One day that will not be enough. Although the Irish state renounced its territorial claims to Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement, its status will remain contested. Constitutional agitation rather than armed struggle will now continue to gnaw at the fraying ropes holding Northern Ireland in the Union.
This is set in the context of British-Irish relations having steadily improved over recent decades. There is even talk of the Queen participating in state commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. In her state visit to Ireland back in 2011, Her Majesty laid a wreath to the IRA volunteers who fought against Britain in Ireland’s War of Independence (to be sure, many had fought for Britain during the First World War). The prospect of “Dublin rule” is no longer, plausibly, a spectre for unionists.
Things are changing in the north too. While the “sectarian headcount” may be a crude measure of political allegiance, it is worth noting that Catholics now outnumber Protestants at every level of the education system. (As they now do in the former unionist citadels of Belfast and Derry). Northern Ireland’s in-built Protestant unionist majority is shrinking; while the integrative logic of an all-Ireland offering to the outside world, essential in terms of investment and tourism, makes the gerrymandered border seem an anachronism.
In time, a similar referendum to the one we’re seeing in Scotland will play out in Northern Ireland. When it comes, it will be hard to imagine the English people and the British political class busting a gut to keep it.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut