Scottish independence: the view from Belfast

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

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.

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.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.