Head-scratching: Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams may whip things up but only 4 per cent of Northern Irish want unity
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Letter from Belfast: support for Irish unity is at an all-time low

Meanwhile, you don't hear Alex Salmond celebrating Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” much any more.

You don’t hear Alex Salmond talking so much about Ireland these days. Gone is the celebration of Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” economy, swiftly disappearing down the toilet along with the vision of a northern European “arc of prosperity” encompassing Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Norway – dynamic small states, each making use of its indigenous assets (and national banks) to get ahead in a global economy while steering serenely afloat above the difficulties besetting larger neighbours. Austerity Ireland, bailed out by Britain and with its budget allegedly passed around the Bundestag before it reached the Dail, is no longer a city on the hill illuminating a path towards sovereignty and prosperity.

You do hear some Irish nationalists chirping excitedly about Scottish independence. But these are from the fanatical wing of Northern Irish politics rather than the sober heads within the Irish government, who are carefully steering their state back from the brink of bankruptcy. Predictably, Gerry Adams told the Sinn Fein party conference in early February that the United Kingdom was “hanging by a thread”. Adams has been saying similar things since 1970. While Sinn Fein has become the master of sectarian one-upmanship in Northern Ireland, public support for Irish unity is lower than ever. A poll last year showed that only 4 per cent of the population wanted unity as soon as possible and only 22 per cent wanted it in 20 years. Even among Catholic voters, the figures were 13 per cent and 27 per cent.

Even more important is that the Irish state has never been less interested in Irish reunification. The last thing that anyone in Dublin wants is any destabilisation of the status quo in Northern Ireland. It is safe to say that the prospect of footing the bill for the region with the most bloated public expenditure of anywhere in the UK is not an enticing one – let alone taking on the burden for security. Even in the much more ideologically charged atmosphere of the 1970s, Harold Wilson’s flirtation with withdrawing from Northern Ireland was enough to send the Irish state into a tailspin of panic. These days it is hard to find even the greenest of Irish statesmen paying unification so much as lip-service.

Historically, the Irish and Scottish national stories have never moved in parallel. They resemble two clocks hung beside each other but set according to different time zones. This is largely because the nationalisms of Ireland and Scotland have been provincial phenomena. Unlike their European counterparts of the 19th or 20th century, they do not follow international patterns and they are determined by local circumstances rather than any transcendent historical forces.

Salmond’s brief infatuation with the Irish model is worth revisiting because it says something about the limitations of his case. David Torrance’s 2010 book, Salmond: Against the Odds, tells of the SNP leader’s links to the family of the late Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, who openly endorsed the notion of Scottish independence within Europe in a short film that Salmond fronted for Scottish television. FitzGerald’s son John, a respected Dublin economist, also spoke at the 1997 SNP conference supporting the viability of an independent Scotland.

This shared technocratic vision – of dynamic small states getting rich backed by the safety net of the European Union – was a hallucination. But it also obscured a much more important point about the deeper ideological and emotional reserves that the Irish nationalist cause could once draw upon, and which have never existed in Scotland. Garret FitzGerald may not have told Salmond about the story of his father, Desmond, who took part in the Easter Rising of 1916, the attempted rebellion that set in train the events that led to the independence of Ireland. One reason Desmond FitzGerald believed that it was necessary to take part in a coup was to awaken the Irish nation before the effects of the Liberal welfare reforms of the pre-war period made the Irish people too dependent on the higher standard of living provided by the British Treasury. An independent Ireland, realistic nationalists knew, could never afford such luxuries or wean itself off them once they were given out.

Thus, the Irish nationalist movement, which secured the independence of Ireland in 1922, contained one crucial ingredient that modern-day Scottish nationalism lacks. This was not violence (take note, Mr Adams)but the willingness of a huge majority of its people to accept a lower standard of living as the price of freedom from England.

Irish nationalist fortitude at the expense of self-interest – infused with a much more authentic sense of grievance and with anti-English feeling – was something that impressed even Winston Churchill, one of the fiercest opponents of Irish independence. “As the price of autonomy the Free State has already accepted a lower standard of public expenditure than in this country,” he said as chancellor of the Exchequer in 1925, not without admiration. “They have lowered the salaries of their teachers, they have reduced their Old Age pay, they have not followed our later developments of unemployment insurance, or pensions for widows, or of pensions at 65 years of age. They have great difficulty balancing the budget.”

Is this a price that most Scots are willing to pay? Perhaps the tipping point of dependence identified by Desmond FitzGerald in 1916 has been passed? Churchill, it should be said, was willing to let Ireland
off its remaining debts, noting that “the small boat labours in a rough sea”. What price a similar soft landing for independent Scotland, with the sharks already circling in the North Sea?

John Bew is an award-winning historian and NS contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder