Back to the future in Northern Ireland

Picture: Detail from a similar mural taken in 2007 by PPCC Antifa on Flickr

A new mural in Belfast is hardly a major news story, but last November a painting appeared in the city that made headlines across Northern Ireland. Rendered on the gable end of a terrace house in East Belfast were two men, rifles in hand, standing beside the insignia of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a notorious Protestant paramilitary outfit responsible for over 480 killings during ‘the Troubles’.

Paramilitary murals are supposed to be a thing of the past in Northern Ireland. So, too, are the armed groups that they are painted in support of. But in recent months both have been gaining a foothold in areas such as East Belfast, among red brick streets where Union flags fly from lamp posts and dissatisfaction with the peace settlement is running at an all-time high.

Around the same time that the finishing touches were being put to the UVF mural in East Belfast, senior US peace envoy Richard Haass was trying to hammer out a peace deal between the parties that share power in the devolved assembly in Stormont.

The Haass talks eventually ended in failure, on New Year’s Eve. The five parties – Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) on the nationalist side, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionists, and the Alliance party, which draws support from Catholics and Protestants –could not agree on what to do about the past, flags and emblems and parades. With local and European elections in May, the prospect of reaching a settlement is fast receding.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, brought to end three decades of violence that left 3,700 dead. There is no immediate prospect of a return to ‘the Troubles’ – despite the intermittent threat posed by anti-agreement Irish republicans and restive loyalists – but increasingly a new form of confrontation is breaking out in Northern Ireland, one fought not with guns and bombs but with culture and tradition.

Symbols of identity provide the battleground in this new conflict. Murals have been part of the landscape for over a century, but the Union flag has been a major issue in Northern Ireland since December 2012, when Belfast city council voted to change its policy on flying the standard from all-year round to a select number of designated days. Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests that almost brought Belfast to a standstill at one stage.

Parades by the Orange Order, a Protestant organisation, have also provided a number of flashpoints. At Twaddell Avenue, in North Belfast, a protest camp has been in place since July after a loyalist parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area.

‘Respect Our Culture’, reads a large poster overlooking the encampment, which is estimated to cost £50,000 to police.

There is ‘a boiling resentment within loyalism’, says Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionists, once the dominant party in Northern Ireland.

“The loyalist/unionist community were promised in ‘98 that nationalists and republicans accepted the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Republicans are now saying, ‘Northern Ireland may be part of the UK on paper, but we are going to do everything we can to make it not look like part of the UK. We are going to take down the Union flag where we can, we are going to take down flags where we can, we are going to take down symbols where we can,’” Nesbitt told me in a recent telephone conversation.

It’s a constant chipping at the manifestations of Britishness that is not something that anyone signed up for in 1998.

Dr Dominic Bryan, director of the Institute for Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast and an expert on the Orange Order, is not surprised that symbols are taking on such potency in Northern Ireland. “When the peace process started we immediately ended up with much higher profile disputes about the symbolic landscape,” he says.

The problem in Northern Ireland – where the electorate still votes overwhelmingly along sectarian lines – is that there is little or no impetus for politicians to compromise on identity. Unionist leaders, for example, can only lose votes by being seen to oppose Orange parades or the flying of the Union flag.

This situation is compounded by the reality that, more than a decade and half since the end of the armed conflict, society remains deeply polarized. The number of ‘peacelines’, defensive barriers separating Catholic and Protestant communities, has actually increased, particularly in Belfast. Education remains deeply segregated, with only about 5 per cent of students attending mixed, or ‘integrated’, schools.

“We have had a political agreement, a democratic process and a reduction in violence but we haven’t had any process that suggested that the communities were less divided,” says Bryan.

Increasingly, it is Protestants who feel like they are losing out in the ‘new’ Northern Ireland – educational attainment is lower in many working-class loyalist areas, and the erosion of traditional heavy industry such has shipbuilding has fuelled a sense of grievance.

“The same problems – deprivation, inequality, industrial decline – you will find in Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow. But (in Protestant communities in Belfast) de-industrialization has coincided with the peace process and the peace process gets blamed for de-industrialization,” says John Brewer, professor of post-conflict studies in Queen’s University, Belfast.

“Loyalists perceive the (Good Friday) Agreement as an anti-Protestant process, in which they have received little or nothing,’ says Brewer. Meanwhile, the Protestant middle-class ‘does not try in the slightest to understand loyalism’.”

In some respects, the existential crisis facing loyalism is surprising. The union seems safer than it has been in generations: a poll last year showed that more than half of Catholics support the constitutional status quo. While deprivation is an issue in some working class Protestant neighbourhoods, 16 of Belfast’s 20 most deprived wards have Catholic majorities.

The public sphere is still overwhelmingly unionist, too, says Dr Dominic Bryan.

It’s an utter irony for unionists to be holding barriers saying that there is a ‘cultural apartheid in North Belfast’ when they have had 32 parades down a particular road in one year. I don’t believe unionism or unionist culture is under threat, it isn’t.

Many loyalists, however, disagree. Jamie Bryson, an anti-Agreement loyalist who emerged on the Northern Irish political scene on the back of the flag protests outside Belfast City Hall, says that compromise with Irish republicanism has led to a ‘dilution’ of the culture of what has become known as the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist (PUL) community.

“There is a ‘culture war’ against our community. I don’t believe our community can give up any more of our identity, to do so would leave us feeling even more oppressed than we already do,” Bryson told me in Belfast just before Christmas, when the Haass peace talks were taking place.

“Would Richard Haass go to America and tell the Americans to take down the stars and stripes because it offends al-Qaeda?”

This piece originally appeared on the new crowdfunded journalism site Contributoria

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Game on for Kosovo?

On March 5, Kosovo played its first international – a friendly against Haiti. Here’s my When Saturday Comes piece on Kosovan national football. 

England? Belgium? Albania? Which international side Adnan Januzaj will declare for has become a minor back page obsession this season. Last month (Note to Ed: January), a new name was added to the list: Kosovo.

On January 13, FIFA announced that Kosovo – the country the Manchester United winger’s parents fled in 1992 – will be allowed to play international matches after years in the footballing wilderness. FIFA had earlier given the go ahead for Kosovo to participate in friendlies in 2012, but reversed the decision under pressure from the Serbian football association.

This time around Kosovo seems certain to finally field an international side, almost six years since declaring independence from Serbia. A fixture has been pencilled in for March, with opponents to be confirmed. Kosovan prime minister Hashim Thaci hailed the FIFA decision as, ‘the first step in creation of a superb national team that could potentially be one of the strongest in Balkans.’

Kosovo teamBut the FIFA ruling places significant limitations on the new outfit: National symbols and anthems will be banned at Kosovo games. The team will take the field in jerseys bearing only the word ‘Kosovo’ and a star. Kosovo can only play friendlies and will not be allowed to face club sides or states from the former Yugoslavia until further notice. Footballing authorities in Serbia will have to be given 21 days advance notice of any Kosovo home matches.

International stars such as Januzaj, Bayern Munich striker Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami are unlikely to switch allegiance to a national team that cannot participate competitively, but the Kosovan FA hopes that situation will change.

‘We will be careful not to call players involved with other national teams at the moment,’ said Eroll Salihu, general secretary of Kosovo’s Football Association. ‘But once Kosovo becomes a full UEFA and FIFA member, it will be our moral obligation to open the doors to players who were either born here or have Kosovo origins.’

FIFA’s decision follows the most significant rapprochement between Kosovo and Serbia since the war ended in 1999. The Brussels Agreement, signed last April, was widely hailed as a breakthrough in relations between Pristina and Belgrade, granting the Kosovan government more control over the restive, Serb-dominated north in exchange for more autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.

Although Serbia still refuses to recognise its former province’s independence, Kosovan officials are hopeful that international friendlies could mark the first step on the road to membership of UEFA and FIFA. (Kosovo is recognised by over a hundred states but does not have a seat at the UN.)

‘FIFA recognizing the right of Kosovo to play international friendly matches is the very first step towards full inclusion of Kosovo in the global football family, 23 years after dictator Milosevic annulled Kosovo’s native football league and closed the stadiums for Albanians,’ said Petrit Selimi, deputy foreign minister.

Not everyone inside Kosovo is happy with the decision. Around 90 per cent of Kosovans are ethnic Albanians, and Kosovo provides the backbone of the both the Albania national team’s players and support.

Some Kosovans cleave to the belief that there should only be a pan-Albanian national team (‘One Nation – One National Team’), not separate Kosovan and Albanian sides. Already supporters groups from FC Pristina and Vllaznimi (from the western Kosovan city of Gjakova) have announced that they will not recognize the Kosovo national team and will only support Albania. The Albania FA has said it does not believe Kosovo-born players, such as current captain Lazio’s Lorik Cana, will switch allegiance.

Others have questioned whether playing international friendlies is the best way to develop football in Kosovo. The country is woefully short of infrastructure, something the current government has failed to redress.

The City Stadium in Pristina, the main ground in Kosovo, needs major renovation work. Recently it was reported that Rasunda stadium in Stockholm had donated second-hand seating and lighting, but these have yet to be installed.

Despite a wealth of Kosovan talent in leagues and national teams across Europe, local football in Kosovo struggles, in part because of a lack of external competition. FIFA’s decision will not change the fact that Kosovan teams are not allowed to play in qualification rounds for the Europa League and the Champion’s League.

As for Adnan Januzaj, there ‘a slim chance’ he will choose to play for Kosovo, says Pristina-based journalist Xhemajl Rexha, ‘but people here would be very happy to see him play for England’.

This piece originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of When Saturday Comes

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How would an indyref Yes affect Northern Ireland?

Would Northern Ireland “end up like West Pakistan” if Scotland says “yes” in September? Could Scottish independence presage a return to the Troubles? These are just some of the concerns being voiced by Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland ahead of the upcoming referendum.

Protestants in Ulster have long celebrated their links with Scotland, so the prospect of Scotland leaving the Union has provoked a bout of soul-searching for some across the Irish Sea.

Earlier this month, Ian Paisley junior, Democratic Unionist MP for North Antrim, said that Scottish independence would embolden dissident Irish republicans, leading to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Previously, former Ulster Unionist Party leader, Reg Empey, had said that if Scotland voted for independence, Northern Ireland would “end up like West Pakistan”, with “a foreign country on one side of us and a foreign country on the other side of us”.

In 2012, Tom Elliot, Lord Empey’s successor as party leader, described the SNP as “a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA”.

Although the Good Friday Agreement guarantees that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can only be changed by a majority vote in the province, some Unionists are deeply concerned that the success of Scottish nationalism could see a clamour for a “border poll” on Irish unification.

The union flag flying at Belfast City HallMike Nesbitt, current leader of the Ulster Unionist party, told The Sunday Herald: “For unionism having seen off Irish republicanism after half a century there is a fear of being undone by Scottish nationalism in the 21st century.”

Nesbitt rejects the suggestion that Scottish independence could lead to a return to violence in Northern Ireland, but says that September’s referendum, regardless of the result, will “politically recalibrate the United Kingdom”. He added: “Even if Scotland says no to independence there is bound to be this push towards devo max and that will obviously have implications for Northern Ireland. Even Unionists whose political inclination is parity recognise that there economic arguments for breaking parity in areas such as corporation tax and air passenger duty.”

But many Unionists are wary of any change to the status quo. The Democratic Unionist Party is the largest party in the devolved Stormont administration, but a significant minority of Protestants remains deeply opposed to power-sharing with Sinn Fein republicans.

Protestants are no longer an absolute majority in Northern Ireland, according to census figures released at the end of 2012. The flag protests that broke out over the removal of the Union flag from City Hall around the same time, and ongoing disturbances around Orange Order parades, have contributed to a siege mentality in loyalist communities and an existential crisis within Unionism itself.

“Unionists don’t know who the hell they are and it’s part of their ongoing dilemma,” says Alex Kane, a columnist for the Belfast Telegraph and a leading unionist commentator in the city.

Former Northern Irish first minister and the architect of the Good Friday deal, Lord David Trimble, believes that Scottish independence could re-open the constitutional question in Northern Ireland. “If there was a Yes vote a lot of people would have to sit up and think and that opens up something,” Trimble told the Sunday Herald.

“(Irish) republicans would get excited and say, ‘It can be done’. Then there is a question, does their getting excited cause a problem? ‘Probably’ is the answer to that.”

Trimble says, however, that the vast majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland are confident that there will be a ‘no’ vote in Scotland.

“Alex Salmond’s main hope for success has always been to rile the English; to get the English riled and to use that to say to the Scots, ‘Look, they hate you, they want rid of you’. It’s a deeply cynical ploy but it has been obvious,” the former Ulster Unionist Party leader said.

Wary of negative headlines in Scotland and the religious dynamic, Irish republicans have been reticent on the question of September’s referendum. But former Sinn Fein director of publicity, Danny Morrison, says independence would have “a psychological effect” on Ulster Unionists.

“The majority Protestant community in the north is Presbyterian, not Anglican, and they identify their roots with dissenters from Scotland,” he says. “Their forebears would be leaving the Union that they hold so dear in the north of Ireland.”

But Morrison does not believe Scottish independence would be a game-changer in Northern Ireland. “Obviously, as an Irish republican I do express a little bit of schadenfreude at them all being upset at the old Union being broken up but does it bring Irish unity closer? No it doesn’t.”

Kane agrees, but for very different reasons, saying: “Sinn Fein have tried to play this bogeyman. ‘When the Scots go, you’re next’, but they don’t understand that a lot of nationalists – with a soft ‘n’ – are going to say, we don’t want (unification), that’s only going to cause far more problems than it’s worth.”

Although ahead in the polls, the No camp in Scotland has been accused of failing to articulate a positive vision of Unionism. Nesbitt says that the independence referendum should be seen as opportunity to “redefine in a more modern way what the union means”.

“We have to redefine ourselves. Look at the 2012 Olympics, where you have a guy born in Somalia, whose religion is Muslim, whose forename is Mohamed, who very joyfully wraps himself in the Union flag,” says Nesbitt. “That’s a very different thing from what we called Britishness in 1914.”

But James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh university, warns that attempts to create a pan-UK Unionist identity are fraught with danger. “Unionisms [across the UK] are very different,” he says. “There are clearly common parts to these Unionisms but there are also differences. Any attempt to forge a common Unionism across the UK will fail, it can’t happen.”

He rejects the idea that independence would lead to a significant change in the relationship between Scotland and Northern Ireland, with which it has had strong cultural links for hundreds of years. “The key relationships are personal, social, family – and I don’t think these need be disrupted at all,” Mitchell says. There is a referendum on the horizon that Northern Irish leaders should be worried about, he says, but it is not the one in Scotland.

“The European aspect is far more important than the Scottish referendum. If Scotland voted for independence and stayed in the EU and the rest of the UK was then to vote to withdraw from Europe that would put Northern Ireland in a very difficult position,” he says.

“You’d have the south [of Ireland] within the EU and Scotland within the EU. That is the most frightening thing from Northern Ireland’s point of view.”

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, February 2, 2014.

 

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Book Review: David Torrance – The Battle for Britain

In 1995, George Robertson, Labour shadow secretary for Scotland, predicted that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ In modern British political history few words have rung so hollow. This year, a decade and a half after a devolved Scottish parliament was established in Edinburgh, Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave Great Britain.

Viewed from this side of the Irish Sea, the drive for Scottish self-determination can seem quixotic, but September’s referendum is as much a product of realpolitik as romantic nationalism. The vote ‘has not come about because of a groundswell in support for independence’, as writer and journalist David Torrance notes in this excellent guide to the current debate. Instead the SNP’s sweeping – and unexpected, even to themselves – victory in devolved elections in 2011 left the party with no choice other than to offer a referendum on their flagship policy.

torranceTwo years is an eternity for a political campaign and, with nine months to go, Scotland’s has managed to be ‘both arid and acrimonious’. (In 2012, Martin McGuinness jokingly offered the Edinburgh and London governments the use of Stormont for ‘peace talks’). It is a huge credit to Torrance, a biographer of Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, that he is able to animate dry policy detail and myriad questions about post-independence Scotland with so much energy.

Historian Tony Judt wrote that the Scots ‘sense of self’ rests upon ‘a curious admix of superiority and resentment’. But identity has largely been conspicuous by its absence from the Scottish referendum debate. If anything is it the unionist campaign – built on a ‘we are all in this together’ sense of Britishness – that has relied most heavily on overt appeals to patriotic sentiment. Scottish nationalists might, however, be advised to start playing the tartan card soon – most independence votes are won on emotion.

But the SNP’s success so far has largely been down to technocratic competence. In government they managed to distance themselves from an unpopular government in Westminster and to plot a reasonably distinct course north of the border in areas such as healthcare (free prescription, no privatisation of the NHS) and education (free tuition fees).

Nationalists could be victims of their own achievements, their prowess in government persuading Scots of the value not of independence but of further devolution. Opinion polls suggest just a third of Scots want to leave the union. Even the SNP propose to keep the Queen as head of state and to continue to use Sterling after independence.

It is on economics that Torrance is most critical of the nationalist vision of independence. The SNP has ‘yet to make up its mind about whether it believes in the neo-liberal or the social democratic model’. Salmond is still trying to live down the infamous 2006 ‘arc of prosperity’ speech in which he compared Scotland to boom-time Iceland and Ireland.

The result in September is not a foregone conclusion. The unremittingly negative unionist campaign could yet push voters into the nationalists’ arms, especially if they suspect that promises of further devolution will be reneged upon. A strong UKIP performance in European elections this summer, coupled with the prospect of a Conservative government in Westminster might also be the spark for a surge in support for going it alone.

Even a ‘no’ in September is unlikely to settle Scotland’s constitutional question for long. As Norman Davies has noted, ‘the political architecture’ of the UK is ‘inherently unbalanced’. Demands for greater autonomy will continue to come from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, England. (Torrance does not dwell on the issue, but the impact of a ‘yes’ vote on Northern Ireland, and particularly embattled unionists, could be seismic.)

Scotland’s independence referendum is likely to be one of the major international news stories of 2014. Which is just as well, because this lively, perspicacious account of the historic vote deserves a wide audience. Brimming with historical antecedents and insightful analysis, and written with an easy style and no little wit, The Battle for Britain is likely to be required reading long after the ballots have been counted in September.

This review appeared in the Sunday Business Post, January 20, 2104. 

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Rev Ian Paisley, statesman?

In likely his final TV interviews, political firebrand the Rev Ian Paisley makes obvious how he wishes to be remembered. Is he kidding himself, wonders Peter Geoghegan

IAN Paisley has come a long way since 1949. That year the novice preacher began a mission in Belfast’s docklands and joined the anti-Catholic Union of Protestants. Nowadays, “the Big Man” sees himself as statesman rather than sectarian rabble-rouser, as the first of two hour-long conversations with the former Northern Ireland first minister, broadcast by BBC Northern Ireland this week, and widely expected to be his last formal interview, attested.

Paisley, especially to outsiders, is often seen as living proof of the transformative power of the Northern Ireland peace process. A firebrand, hardline Protestant whose Damascene conversion to power-sharing with Catholics culminated in assuming power at Stormont in 2007, where he formed such a firm rapport with his deputy and one-time sworn enemy, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, that wags dubbed the pair the “Chuckle Brothers”.

Now 87, and having suffered a series of health scares, Paisley seems to have one eye on what Tony Blair called “the hand of history”. Mindful of his legacy, Paisley took the opportunity of a turn on national television to paint himself as, amongst other things, a misunderstood advocate of civil rights.

“The whole system was wrong, it was not one man, one vote – that’s no way to run any country. It should be absolute freedom and absolute liberty,” the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party said of the tinderbox situation in late 1960s Northern Ireland. He opposed the civil rights movement, Paisley told his interviewer, journalist Eamonn Mallie, because he felt those behind it wanted a united Ireland, something “no decent law-abiding Protestant could associate themselves with”.

The problem for Paisley is that the historical record – much of it captured on the record – casts serious doubts on such irenic imaginings. He did not just oppose the civil rights movement, he actively organised raucous demonstrations against those demanding a freer, fairer Northern Ireland. In 1969, as sectarian strife began to flare on the streets, he was jailed for organising an illegal protest against a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in Armagh.

Paisley showed a lukewarm commitment to civil rights, too, when, in 1968, campaigner Bernadette Devlin suggested to him that the Unionist state had been unjust and unfair. There had been wrongs, Paisley conceded, but he maintained: “I would rather be British than fair”.

No wonder veteran civil rights activist Ivan Cooper last week described Paisley’s version of his past as “all over the place”.

Cooper, a Protestant founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said: “Never did Ian Paisley issue one word of compassion or one word of understanding for the civil rights movement. And similarly with Bloody Sunday, it was exactly the same.”

While Paisley attempted to present a more emollient self for the television audience, the egotistical, divisive side of his character occasionally bubbled to the surface. Such as the callous comment that the 33 victims of the 1974 Dublin/Monaghan bombings – the highest toll in a single incident in the Northern Irish conflict until the Omagh bomb – had brought the attacks on “themselves” through their support for Dublin’s government.

“At that time the attitude to Northern Ireland of the southern government was ridiculous. I said I had nothing to do with [the bombing] and I denounced the people who did it. What more could I do? I took my stand, I denounced what was wrong, but I could not say to the people just sit down and let them put a rope round your neck.”

Paisley stood by a previous remark that the IRA were the armed wing of the Catholic Church: “Well that’s true, it stands true in history. They have been, the people of the church of Rome, used to further their interests,” he said. This is the same Paisley who, in his younger days, had organised a mock Mass on the platform of the Ulster Hall.

Paisley is “a complex and protean personality who imagines cyclones of blessings, compares himself to the diminutive Mahatma Gandhi,” Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin wrote in the London Review of Books in 1982. Not much has changed 30 years on. The man who founded first his own church and then his own political party, before finally ascending to the highest office in the land, remains a chimera.

“One of the strongest features of Puritanism,” Tom Paulin noted, “is its autobiographical tendency, its passionate self-regard.” Few people embody this inclination to the same degree as Ian Paisley. Over the years, Paisley – who was born in 1926 to an Evangelical father and a mother who was, in his own words, from “a Scots Covenanting home” – has produced dozens of books combining fire and brimstone theology, sermonising and autobiography.

His decision to participate in the BBC interviews also reflects how much his self-regard is still smarting at his being bounced into relinquishing control of the DUP, and the Stormont assembly, to Peter Robinson in 2008. The former head honcho has been a persistent back seat driver ever since. Paisley has not been able not resist the temptation to take a sideswipe at his former number two; in next week’s interview he denies any responsibility for Peter Robinson’s farcical incursion across the Irish border in 1986 as part of protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Robinson has reacted angrily, describing Paisley’s account as “a failure of recollection”. Sources within the DUP said Mr Paisley was among the organisers of the ill-fated invasion, during which a couple of hundred loyalists paraded in the square before being forced back over the border by Irish police.

Paisley has frequently denied any involvement in violence but, as Paulin observed, “a dynamic millenarian rhetoric can inspire men to place actual dynamite under the status quo”. How many loyalist paramilitaries did Paisley’s fiery rhetoric rouse into action? We will never know. But in his BBC interviews Paisley shows no compunction about his involvement with the Ulster Defence Association during the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Strike, the campaign that he led which eventually toppled the Sunningdale Agreement.

It is easy to caricature Paisley as an arch-unionist, but he is probably better described as an Ulster nationalist. His relationship with Britain – and Britishness – has been marked by ambivalence over the years.

“I am shrewdly suspicious of the British government, I don’t put my faith in the British government,” Paisley told Irish Times journalist Frank Millar in 2008, during an on-going impasse over policing in Northern Ireland. “I think the British government would like someone else where I sit, and would make a deal. Well I intend to sit tight… Do you think I have come to 80 years of age to sell my soul?”

Ian Paisley might not have sold his soul, but reaction from Northern Ireland this week suggests that history might not be as kind to the erstwhile DUP leader as he would hope. Writing in the Belfast Newsletter, unionist commentator Alex Kane reckoned that the Big Man had not changed as much as he would like us to believe: “The Ian Paisley of 1964 is still there: yet, 50 years on, his party and country have left him behind. Will history be kind to him? I wouldn’t put a bet on it.”

The “No” politics that Ian Paisley personified for so many years is still alive in Northern Ireland – as the recent aborted Haass peace talks illustrated. Paisley is not the demagogue he once was, but, as these interviews demonstrate, neither is he the uncompromised “peacemaker” he yearns to be.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, 17 January 2014.

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Ulster Unionism’s on defensive over Scotland – but threats won’t win argument

On September 18, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. A ‘Yes’ vote would bring to an end the 1707 Union, leaving behind a rump United Kingdom, comprising England, Wales and a Northern Ireland constitutionally marooned from its nearest – both geographically and emotionally – UK neighbour.

Clearly, Northern Ireland has a lot at stake in September’s plebiscite. Nationalists and unionists alike wonder if Scottish independence could have a domino effect, propelling the “break-up of Britain” foreshadowed by Scottish nationalist writer Tom Nairn more than three decades ago leading, eventually, to a United Ireland.

But the response from both sides of the Northern Irish divide to this prospect has been markedly different.

Nationalists have had surprisingly little – at least in public – to say on the subject of Scottish independence. Of course, most would welcome any loosening of the ties that bind the United Kingdom, but they are aware, too, of the politically toxic nature of sectarianism in Scotland.

saltireAn overt intervention from Sinn Fein would be political poison for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party. So they stand on the sidelines, issue the odd murmur and cross their fingers for a ‘Yes’ on September 18.

Unionists, on the other hand, seem to be growing restive. Wary of their kin across the Irish Sea flying the constitutional nest, unionists have become increasingly vocal – which is a problem, because their voice is often shrill, their message shallow.

Take Ian Paisley Jnr‘s comments this week. A ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland would, the North Antrim MP said, be a spur for dissident republican violence, destabilising Northern Ireland and unravelling the gains of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is unclear how a democratic referendum in another part of the United Kingdom could give succour to gunmen who have minimal support even within their own communities.

If anything, the SNP’s success proves beyond a reasonable doubt the supremacy of constitutional means. Regardless of the result in September, Alex Salmond and his party have shown that it is the ballot box – not the Armalite – that works.

Paisley said his comments were designed to awaken supporters of the Union from a complacent stupor arising from the ‘No’ side’s commanding poll lead in Scotland. But his reductio ad absurdum is likely to have the opposite effect, marginalising unionists still further from the heart of the Scottish debate.

In fairness, Paisley is not the only unionist who has tried – and failed – to engage with the question of Scottish independence. In 2012, the Orange Order’s Dr David Hume said people of Ulster Scots descent in Northern Ireland should have a vote in September’s referendum.

Speaking to a Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland event in Glasgow, Dr Hume said: “We are stakeholders, as well. Surely a decision such as this should not ignore our input?”

But nobody is denying unionists’ “input” into the Scottish debate. Extending the franchise to people of Scottish descent in Northern Ireland is completely unworkable – by the same token, what about those in Canada? Australia? England? – but unionists are free to make their case for the Union, to appeal to their Scottish brethren’s hearts and heads.

Instead, unionists have pleaded for a vote, or issued thinly-veiled warnings about a return to the Troubles if Scotland decides to go it alone.

Such aggressive tactics are unlikely to prove popular with the Scottish electorate, but, more importantly, they reveal the depth of the existential crisis at the heart of unionism, both in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

What is the positive case for the Union? This is not a flippant question. Just this week, former Labour Scottish first minister Henry McLeish, writing in The Scotsman, asked why “there is still no sense of urgency about making a positive and modern case for the Union, no sense of grasping the seriousness of the ‘Yes’ campaign and the impact it is making and no sense of the public disillusionment with Westminster politics?”

That is not to say there is no positive case that unionists can make. Historically, the United Kingdom proved so successful precisely because it is so flexible and capable of reinvention, as Linda Colley reminds us in her new book, Acts of Union and Disunion.

But contemporary unionists seem to be lacking invention. Since the Second World War, unionism has struggled to forge a creative sense of shared identity across these islands.

Meanwhile, the constitutional settlement has come under renewed pressure. Regardless of the result in September, power will continue to seep from Westminster to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and even, perhaps, a separate English parliament.

The year 2014 is the centenary of another, oft-forgotten constitutional upheaval: the Government of Ireland Act. Even if the First World War had not intervened, unionist resistance might have put paid to Home Rule.

But, 100 years on, unionists now need to develop a compelling, non-coercive case for maintaining the Union. If their attempts to join the Scottish independence debate are anything to go by, they have a long way to go.

This column originally appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, 10 January 2014.

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Ulster is still problematic

After the collapse of the Haass talks, power sharing in Northern Ireland is bound to get even more dysfunctional, writes Peter Geoghegan

Have you heard the one about the government minister who, at Christmas, took his cabinet colleague to court in a row over public spending? This might sound like the set-up to a festive gag for political anoraks, but it is exactly what transpired at the High Court in Belfast last week.

Northern Ireland finance minister Simon Hamilton, a Democratic Unionist, initiated the legal action against Sinn Fein agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill. Mr Hamilton won.

From now on, Ms O’Neill will have to seek approval from the rest of the Stormont cabinet over how she distributes European funding.

This, increasingly, is how politics works in Northern Ireland. So it probably should not come as too great a surprise that cross-party peace talks – even those with the imprimatur of the United States – failed to reach a compromise on New Year’s Eve.

But the inability of the five Stormont executive parties to do a deal under the watchful eyes of former US peace envoy Richard Haass was still a shock. In the days – even the hours – leading up to Tuesday’s deadline, Northern Irish political leaders had made positive noises to the media. Dr Haass himself had said he was confident of reaching “meaningful agreement” when he returned to Belfast before Christmas.Haass

Northern Ireland, of course, had been here before, too. From Good Friday, in 1998, through to St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough four years ago, every significant agreement in the peace process had been forged in the smithy of late-night brinkmanship. Every time collapse had seemed imminent but, at each juncture, common ground was, eventually, found.

Like most observers, I assumed that another dose of “constructive ambiguity” – a fudge – would reconcile unionists and nationalists on the three big issues of the day: flags, parades and the past. But not this time.

Instead, Dr Haass left Belfast’s Stormont Hotel a failure. Sinn Féin had said they were prepared to recommend the proposals to their executive, but unionists would not sign up to Haass’ seventh and final draft late on Monday night.

Despite Haass’ protestations that he has created a platform upon which compromise can be built, the reality is that little progress his been made.

“Nothing is resolved. There is ambiguity about the process. There is ambiguity about the outcome. We are no closer to understanding the needs of victims, no closer to addressing the past, no closer to an agreement on flags,” a source inside the Haass talks told The Scotsman.

So where does the fault in this failure to reach an agreement lie? In the zero-sum game of Northern Irish politics, the temptation is often to accord blame equally: “a plague on both your houses.” Certainly, recriminations have come quickly on both sides of the sectarian divide: on Tuesday night, just hours after the talks broke up, Ulster Unionist Party negotiator Jeff Dudgeon blamed the cross-community Alliance for the process failing, a far-fetched accusation that gained little traction.

When searching for culprits to finger, Mr Dudgeon would do better to look closer to home. As the final version of the Haass proposals, published on the devolved Stormont government’s website, makes clear, it was unionists who stood firmly in the way of a deal. On a raft of issues, most notably on parading and the past, nationalists, and particularly Sinn Fein, made a number of concessions.

But unionist leaders, more worried about being outflanked from the right – by flag protesters such as Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazier and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice’s Jim Allister – than doing a deal with Irish nationalism, remained intransigent. After Haass left, Democratic Unionist party first minister Peter Robinson said: “I detect from each of the parties a willingness to work on to complete the task.” A wonder, then, why Mr Robinson did not decide to stick around for the crucial final plenary session of the talks on Monday night.

Ulster unionism has previous when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

You would never know it to listen to Peter Robinson or Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, but Northern Ireland’s place in the union has never been more secure. The constitutional question is essentially settled in Northern Ireland – far more settled, at least, than it is here in Scotland.

The Good Friday Agreement enshrined the principle that only the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland can change its constitutional status. Opinion polls put support for a united Ireland at just one-fifth.

But instead of celebrating their triumph, unionist leaders are embroiled in a myopic culture war that is driving a further wedge between communities in Northern Ireland, in the process making compromise almost impossible.

When Belfast City councilors voted last winter to fly the Union flag from Belfast city hall on designated days, rather than all year round, unionists had an opportunity to claim a history victory. Irish republicans – who just a decade-and-a-half earlier had fought an armed campaign against the British state – were now voting to fly the red, white and blue on the Queen’s birthday!

How did unionism respond? By decrying a democratic decision as an assault on Protestant culture, effectively sanctioning flag-waving loyalist protesters that almost brought Belfast to a standstill.

Meanwhile, a protest camp has been in place since July on north Belfast’s Twaddell Avenue, after an Orange Order parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area.

Unionists should not take all the blame for the Haass disaster.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers was, as one senior figure put it to me, a “bystander” throughout the talks. Her comments to BBC Radio 4 in the aftermath showed just how out of her depth the Conservative member for Chipping Barnet is in Belfast. “The reality is if you look at issues of identity, some people would argue that it’s been a problem for the last 800 years. In many ways, it’s not surprising that it can’t be fixed in three months.”

Ms Villiers’ party leader, David Cameron, has shown neither aptitude nor inclination for Northern Ireland since he assumed office.

Westminster should have been at the Haass table. These were issues it had a real say in: parading is not devolved, flags are about sovereignty, and the British state was hardly a silent partner in the murky world of “the past”. But instead the British government watched Haass from the sidelines.

Reports of the Good Friday Agreement’s demise are greatly exaggerated. But the default setting at Stormont is conflict, not compromise. “We are in a power-sharing government but we are not sharing power. We are firmly embedded in our own fiefdoms without any sense of responsible, just government,” says John McCallister, deputy leader of the new liberal unionist party NI21 and a former member of the Ulster Unionist Party.

With European and local elections this summer, a Westminster vote next year and devolved elections due in 2016, the political temperature in Northern Ireland is only getting to get hotter. Which is good news for Belfast High Court lawyers, but not for the many people in Northern Ireland who are fed up with “extraordinary” politics.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman, on January 6, 2013. 

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Northern Ireland talks seek calm in festive season

As party talks reconvened in Northern Ireland this week to resolve old disputes over religious and national differences, a small business in Belfast is using mutual respect to bridge the gaps in this split society.

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast January 5, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)Restrictions on flying the union flag in Belfast has become a bone of contention

Last Christmas, protests over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall almost brought the city to a standstill. Hoping to reach a “meaningful agreement” before Christmas, senior United States diplomat Richard Haass is leading discussions with the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, in Belfast.

The talks are taking place against an increasingly restive backdrop: On Monday (16.12.2013), a firebomb ignited inside a Belfast city store.

Republican dissident group Óglaigh na hÉireann earlier claimed responsibility for a bomb that partially exploded in the city on Friday night. The blast followed a bomb scare in Belfast last week, and two separate attacks on Northern Ireland police officers in the city earlier this month.

Calm Christmas sought

Candles at Christmas in IrelandNegotiators are aiming for a calm Christmas

Haass, a former US special envoy for Northern Ireland, is expected to produce a series of recommendations for the Northern Ireland parliament to consider. These could include a framework for helping victims of the 30-year-long conflict, which has cost more than 3,000 lives.

Differences between Irish Catholics and Protestants with roots in Britain living inn Northern Ireland continue to simmer after decades of outright violence starting in the late 1960s, known as “The Troubles.”

Last month, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, suggested ending prosecutions over Troubles-related killings that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Historical Enquiries Team has until now dealt with such cases, delivering only a handful of successful convictions.

But the past is not the only issue on the table this week – parades remain an annual source of tension. A protest camp of loyalists, or those wanting to strengthen ties to Britain, has been in place at Twaddell Avenue in North Belfast since July, after a decision to restrict an Orange Order parade. It’s estimated that policing the camp costs 50,000 British pounds (60,000 euros) a day.

Many in Northern Ireland are hopeful that an agreement can be reached on parading, with abolition of the current Parades Commission and creation of a new parades body being the most likely outcome. However, the issue of flags could prove far more difficult to solve.

Flag dispute reflects rift

Women draped in Union flags walk past a burning car after loyalist protesters attacked the police with bricks and bottles as they waited for a republican parade to make its way through Belfast City Centre August 9, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)Violence during parades, like the aftermath of a riot pictured here, is an issue at talks

Last December, Belfast City Council voted to change its policy on flying the union flag, which represents support for the bond with Britain. Since then the standard has been flown at City Hall on designated days, rather than year-round as was previously the case. The move brought Belfast in line with most councils in Northern Ireland, including a number of unionist-dominated administrations.

Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests. Although the demonstrations have abated – an anniversary protest last month attracted just 1,500 people – the flag remains a live issue. Recently, unionist councillors on Belfast City Council sent back official Christmas cards after they featured the image of a flagless City Hall.

So far, prospects for a deal appear shaky. Democratic Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson said that there would be “steam coming out of my ears” in response to the idea that the draft document produced by Haass could represent the final agreement.

However, he added that he believed agreement was still possible. “Nobody is throwing the towel in at this stage,” Robinson said.

Politicians in the UK parliament warned that issues in Northern Ireland’s past would never be resolved if politicians fail to reach agreement.

“If we get it wrong we may never get another opportunity to address these issues,” Naomi Long – a member of the UK parliament for the centrist Alliance Party – told BBC. Long is also participating in negotiations at the Haass talks.

Breaking down the divide

The peace wall separating Catholic and Protestant communities on Cupar Way in Belfast (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)A “peace wall” separates Catholic and Protestant communities on Cupar Way in Belfast

Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society, despite the cessation of large-scale armed violence. In many working-class parts of Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities remain separated by walls, fences and gates, known euphemistically as “peace walls.”

At Cupar Way in West Belfast, a peace wall has separated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods since 1969. Both areas have among the highest rates of unemployment in Northern Ireland. But there are attempts to create new opportunities across the peace wall.

In 2011, women from both sides of the sectarian divide at Cupar Way came together to form the Belfast Cleaning Company. The business already has six staff members and 10 cleaning contracts. The key to its success is respect, founding member Alice McLarnon told DW.

“We respect each other’s culture,” McLarnon said. While she sees herself as Irish, her co-worker would see herself as British, but this doesn’t matter to either. “She sees me as a co-worker,” McLarnon said.

Alice McLarnon of the Belfast Cleaning Company (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)Alice McLarnon of the Belfast Cleaning Company (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)

The cleaning company is run as a cooperative: Every member has an equal say and an equal share. Although co-ops are not commonplace in Northern Ireland, their popularity is growing. Earlier this month, a cooperative taxi firm started in West Belfast with around 50 drivers.

For the Belfast Cleaning Company, the aim is simple – to grow the business, and build relationships across the peace wall.

“The goal is to create better employment along the interface, to have a better living way for the women,” McLarnon said. “When you create employment across the divide, you actually break down the divide,” says Alice McLarnon.

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

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Sectarianism still forms divide

Sectarianism goes beyond football matches and a proper understanding is vital if we are to release the hold it retains on some, writes Peter Geoghegan.

In Scotland, “sectarianism” is one of those words that are guaranteed to spark debate. For some, bigotry is a poison that infects every pore of society, from the workplace to the terrace. For others, it’s a relic of a dim and distant past, overstated, overindulged and often met with a rolling of the eyes.

Responses to last week’s report on sectarianism commissioned by the Scottish government typify Janus-faced attitudes to what James McMillan (in)famously dubbed “Scotland’s shame”.

“Scotland growing tired of sectarianism”; “Sectarianism still a force in Scotland”; “Old Firm still to meet bigotry study group” and “Sectarianism not caused by denominational schools” were among the eclectic headlines that greeted the findings of the advisory group on tackling sectarianism in Scotland.

Sectarianism, as Duncan Morrow, the chair of the advisory group established last August, noted at the report’s launch in Glasgow on Friday, “is an issue that is either dealt with by silence or sensationalism”. Having spent his career toiling at the coalface of community relations in Northern Ireland, Dr Morrow knows a lot about sectarianism and there is much to commend in his report – not least that now, almost a decade and a half after being established, the Scottish parliament has a firm basis on which to ground its well-funded anti-sectarianism strategies.

While the report’s sections on football and education have understandably grabbed most attention, arguably its most useful service is in providing a clear definition of what sectarianism actually is.

Sectarianism is often understood in purely religious terms – Catholic or Protestant – but the way these identities are formed owes far more to ideas about politics and ethnicity. Just as in Northern Ireland, bigotry here has little, if anything, to do with doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants: calling someone a “Hun” or a “Fenian” is not a cipher for a theological debate about consubstantiation versus transubstantiation.

Instead, as the advisory group recognises, sectarianism has everything to do with how “them” and “us” are created, and then maintained through symbols, from football clubs to flags to parades.

The report also brings a much-needed dose of reality to the often febrile conversation about sectarianism in Scotland. Bigotry exists – there have been more than 7,000 sectarian incidents reported since 2003, with only 30 per cent of those occurring at football matches – but it is not the over-arching structural inequality it once was.

Large-scale migration to Scotland from Ireland began almost 200 years but it was only in the 1950s and early 1960s, with the advent of new foreign-owned industry and the nationalisation of older manufactures, that discrimination against Catholics started to end.

Fifty years ago someone like me – a first generation Irish Catholic who has lived in Scotland for almost ten years – could have expected to face discrimination in most avenues. Certain firms categorised job applications by religious affiliation, and Catholics were rarely given skilled posts.

But in my time on this side of the Irish Sea, I’ve only been on the receiving end of sectarian discrimination once, and that was from a foul-tongued teenager in a bus station in Glasgow at one in the morning.

That is not to say that sectarianism does not exist in Scotland. At last Friday’s press launch for the advisory group report, in Glasgow, Dr Morrow was grilled about the focus placed on institutions, and specifically local authorities, in failing to adequately address sectarianism.

It has become a truism to say that sectarianism is a thing of the past in Scottish workplaces – since 2003, it has been illegal for employers to discriminate on grounds of religion and belief (and no belief) – but there are plenty of recent examples of sectarian behaviour in the public sector, from the two Stirling council staff investigated in 2011 for posting anti-Catholic messages on social media to the bin man in Airdrie who, because he supported Rangers, was attacked with a shovel by a colleague.

“All local authorities should embrace the issue of tackling sectarianism with the conviction and confidence with which they have approached other equality issues,” last Friday’s report avers, quite reasonably.

But the problem remains one of leadership. Despite the best efforts of Jack McConnell, sectarianism was largely absent from public discourse in Scotland until 2011, when a combination of parcel bombs and fisticuffs aimed at Celtic manager Neil Lennon catapulted the issue on to the media agenda, nationally and internationally.

The clumsy Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill (which has, if anything, inflamed the situation) quickly followed. Justice minister Kenny MacAskill caught the shrill mood of the time when he declared at the 2011 SNP conference” “It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916, it’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.”

The Scottish government has, to a large extent, put its money where its mouth is. Around £9 million in funding is being invested in anti-sectarian work; while a lot of this cash is going to the police, a sizeable chunk has been handed to voluntary and community groups. But there still seems to be resistance in some quarters: as many headline writers noted last week, neither Celtic nor Rangers managed to find the time to meet with the advisory group during the last 16 months, despite both clubs profiting handsomely from public funding for anti-sectarian initiatives (to the tune of around £1m each over the last decade).

The danger now is that having done sensationalism for the last couple of years, Scotland could revert to the status quo when it comes to sectarianism, silence. The advisory group report makes a series of useful recommendations – including the suggestion that parades balance the right to march with the rights of communities and that there is no need for further legislation to tackle sectarianism – but institutional change will require active political will at every level. A genuine discussion about shared campuses in our schools is long overdue.

As David Scott, head of anti-sectarian strategy Nil by Mouth, says: “Sectarianism is not the biggest problem Scotland faces but we should not underestimate the hold it has on people who inhabit that world.”

Nil By Mouth has itself contacted 120 quangos in Scotland offering free anti-sectarian training. One would hope that each organisation takes up the offer.

A couple of days before the advisory group report was launched, I found myself standing beside a 40-foot high corrugated metal fence at Cupar Way in West Belfast. The euphemistically titled “peace wall”, the longest such barrier in Europe, separates Catholics on the Falls Road from Protestants on the Shankill. Every night at seven o’clock a gate linking the two sides is bolted shut. Nobody I met in West Belfast thought the wall would come down any time soon.

Thankfully walls topped with barbed wire do not divide Catholics and Protestants in Scotland, but many still live largely separate existences. Sectarianism here is not the all-encompassing behemoth, but there are still too many barriers in too many people’s minds. Dr Morrow’s advisory group has provided the Scottish government with a road map; they now need to follow it.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman, 19 December, 2013.

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State of the Union: Artists and Scottish independence

In 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether or not to end the union with England. Artists have always played a role in national movements, so will they vote yes or no?

Mark Hogarth (left), Stuart Braithwaite, and Ken McCluskey at a debate over Scottish independence.<br />
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)

The Centre of Contemporary Arts is among Glasgow’s most popular venues. Earlier this week, a fashionable crowd of artists and “creatives” gathered at the center not to watch a band or to see the latest exhibition. They came instead to listen to a debate about what is fast becoming this season’s hottest topic among Scottish artists: independence.

In September 2014, Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party, which control the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, have spearheaded the drive for an independence vote and the country’s artists have been a vocal presence at the heart of the national conversation about whether Scotland should go it alone.

Going it alone

Polls suggest that around a third of Scots are in favor of independence currently, but support seems higher among Scotland’s creative community. Famous writers, poets and visual artists such as Liz Lochead, James Kelman and James Robertson have all come out in support of a ‘yes’ vote.

“I think there are a lot of people in the arts who are pro-independence,” Stuart Braithwaite, founder of Scottish post-rock group Mogwai told the audience at the CCA debate, which was organized and facilitated by Scottish social media platform Kiltr.

A picture of the panel at the debate<br />
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)Artists often play a role in national movements but will independence lead to less money?

Why independence?

Mr Braithwaite has been a prominent voice in favor of independence, particularly on Twitter where he goes by the handle @plasmatron. During the hour-long discussion he explained why so many artists are backing the independence cause.

“I’ve a theory about why that is. When you make art you are willing to go into the unknown. Independence is going to be a leap of faith,” the musician said.

“The unknown frightens people. Scottish people are quite cautious but not in the arts. You are willing to take a leap of faith, to imagine a better Scotland and a better future, take a blank canvas and imagine something wonderful on it.”

Politicising the artistic movement is ‘stupid’

At the debate though, speaking in favour of a “no” vote next year, Mark Hogarth, creative director at the clothing brand Harris Tweed Hebrides, said it would be “stupid” for anyone to try to politicise the artistic movement in Scotland.

“I work in branding. There’s nothing that strikes a greater chord than something that is new and nostalgic,” he said. “Independence is both of those things. Of course it’s going to strike a chord. It’s easier to get behind than the status quo.”

Mr Hogarth criticised the assumption that Scotland’s creative community is united behind independence. “There are artists and other individuals out there who have maybe not come to a conclusion yet. Perhaps the fact they have not been quite as voluminous as the independence campaign is no representation of how the artistic community actually lies,” he said.

‘Politically neutral’

The role of the arts in the independence debate has already caused controversy in Scotland. During the summer, Sir Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), said material related to independence would not appear at next year’s festival

“We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that,” Mills said in an interview with a Scottish newspaper at the time.

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts can ever be “politically neutral.”

“I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion,” novelist Denise Mina said at the time.

‘Settlers and Colonists’

“The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful.”

Audience at debate in Glasgow on the issue of Scottish independence(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW)Judging by the crowd’s response, there were more cheers for the ‘Yes’ camp

The four-person panel at the CCA debate in Glasgow featured another person whose views on Scotland’s constitutional destiny have grabbed headlines: writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray. In an essay entitled “Settlers and Colonists” published late last year, Mr Gray suggested that since the 1970s, English men and women have been over-represented in the upper echelons of Scottish life, in “electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services” and in the arts.

The avuncular, white-haired Gray was a firm favorite with the audience in Glasgow, even if not everyone agreed with his suggestion that culturally Scotland punches below its weight compared with similar sized countries such as Ireland.

Expressing some doubts about the push for independence, designer Emlyn Firth told DW “I don’t think everyone has completely thought through the ramifications of what might happen to the eco-system of contemporary art or design if we do go independent.”

‘The Glasgow miracle’

That eco-system is well represented in Glasgow. The city’s recent cultural regeneration has been so successful that renowned art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has dubbed it “The Glasgow Miracle.” Some in the “No” camp have warned that a vote for independence could jeopardize Scotland’s artistic achievements thus far; perhaps fearing that there would not be as much money around to achieve these kinds of “miracles” in an independent Scotland.

Alasdair Gray and Pauline McNeil<br />
(Photo: Andrew Grindlay, for DW) Agreeing to disagree, Pauline McNeil feels independence will bring nothing to the arts

“Independence will bring nothing to the arts,” says Pauline McNeil former shadow minister for culture in the devolved Scottish parliament and an advocate of retaining the status quo at the CCA debate.

“Scotland and the arts community would flourish better by sticking with what we have now.”

All in all, judging by the reaction at the close of the debate – the two ‘yes’ voices received the biggest cheers of the night – many in Scotland’s artistic community are still backing independence. But there is a long way to go between now and polling day on 18 September 2014.

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

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