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.

Head-scratching: Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams may whip things up but only 4 per cent of Northern Irish want unity
Head-scratching: Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams may whip things up but only 4 per cent of Northern Irish want unity
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

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