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11 September 2014

How would a Scottish Yes vote affect Northern Ireland’s Unionist politics?

The Scottish referendum campaign has served to weaken Ulster Unionist faith in a historical Ulster-Scots identity, and if Northern Ireland stays in the Union there may be more calls to integrate into the UK party system.

By Philip Bell Philip Bell

Alex Salmond rarely mentions Northern Ireland. He is keen to stress the self-contained identity of Scotland, looking to Norway as a model for a new society while glorifying Bannockburn. Many in Northern Ireland, however, are shaken by the idea that Scotland would want to leave the UK. They see Scotland as a living part of Northern Irish Unionist identity. “The movements of people from north east Ireland to Scotland and vice versa have taken place well before the creation of our unitary British state,” Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, wrote this week. “We are a family.”

An affinity to Scotland is written into the Northern Irish Unionist psyche. The language Ulster-Scots, under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, was given “parity of esteem” with Irish; it was to be a weapon for Unionists to counteract Irish Gaelic culture. The language was first documented in 1640, thirty-four years after the first Scottish planters landed in Ulster.

The cultural conflict in Northern Ireland is balanced, in theory, by an equal appreciation of both Ulster Protestant and Irish Catholic cultures. Some Sinn Féin MLAs start addresses to the Legislative Assembly at Stormont in Irish. In response, Democratic Unionist Party politicians, who share power with Sinn Fein, occasionally stray into Ulster Scots in their speeches.

Ulster Loyalists feel their ‘Culture’ is under attack. January 2013 saw violent protests over keeping the Union-Jack above Belfast City Hall, and there was rioting due to blocked marching routes in the North Belfast Ardoyne area that summer. Loyalists represent themselves firstly as Ulster people who are historically Scottish, rather than Irish. Without Scotland in the union, this notion of an Ulster Protestant Unionist identity may be fatally undermined.

To visibly parade their historical loyalty up to 2000 Northern Irish Orange Order members are set to travel to Edinburgh on 13 September to march with fellow Scottish Orange Lodge members. “Scottish brethren stood beside us during the Troubles and we need to stand by them when their place in the union is under threat politically,” the assistant grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland said. However, their intervention could alienate potential No voters.

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On the other hand, Scottish independence would undoubtedly provide an immense boost for those seeking a united Ireland. A giant ‘Yes’ has been painted on Divis Mountain, overlooking Belfast. Sinn Féin would certainly call for a referendum on the issue in the event of a ‘yes’. Indeed, former Irish government minister Lucinda Creighton TD has said that an independent Scotland with Northern Ireland staying in the union would be “extraordinary”.

But she warned that calls for a referendum in the North could ‘threaten the peace process and alienate the Protestant community.’ One commentator has gone as far as to say that Scotland should “take Northern Ireland with [them]“.

But whatever the outcome, the referendum may stimulate a re-evaluation of Northern Ireland’s political relationship with Westminster. Since the Labour Party do not organise in Northern Ireland and the Conservatives made only a flimsy electoral alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party in 2009, Northern Irish people have effectively very little democratic agency in Westminster.

The DUP and Sinn Féin, a party who refuse take their seats in the Commons, are the fourth and sixth largest parties in the UK. The Northern Irish vote is split between parties that do not get into government or official opposition. The electorate therefore do not vote British governments, cabinet ministers or prime ministers into power. This might put the position of Scotland, who have produced two out of the last three Prime Ministers, into perspective.

According to Nick Clegg the “cat is out of the bag” on the devolution issue in England and there are calls for more devolution in Wales.

The effects of the referendum will be felt even more keenly in Northern Ireland, however. Northern Irish politics has been inward-looking, facilitated by the reluctance of British parties to organise there. Scotland’s questioning of the union may have provided a galvanising shock, and the opportunity for Northern Ireland to integrate into the British party system. This is surely the only way to finally move on from sectarian politics.

Philip Bell is a journalist who has worked for the Belfast Newsletter and The Economist. He lives in Belfast and went to school in Scotland. His grandfather Sam Hanna Bell, born in Glasgow, wrote one of the few novels that incorporated Ulster Scots, Across the Narrow Sea