A pack on the Irish in Coatbridge and Scotland’s independence referendum from RTE’s Morning Ireland in March.
With his Eton education and clipped vowels, David Cameron is often seen as quintessentially English. But lately the British prime minister has been talking up his Scottish heritage – with particular emphasis on Clan Cameron’s motto, “Let us unite.”
As September’s referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom draws closer, Mr. Cameron is becoming increasingly concerned about a burgeoning shift among Scots towards the pro-independence side, which prompted a rare visit to Scotland today to press the unionist case in person.
But observers warn that the Conservative prime minister may be in a no-win situation north of the border, where he crystallizes Scotland’s nationalist and anti-Tory sentiments while not yet offering a constructive alternative to undecided Scottish voters.
“These token trips mean virtually nothing,” says Karly Kehoe, a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University. “What the politicians at Westminster need to demonstrate to the Scottish public is that they understand the level of debate taking place here and that they are engaged with the issues.”
A Tory in a Scottish land
Cameron told reporters in Glasgow today that he would be making an “unrelentingly positive” case for the union over the coming months. Speaking at the start of a two-day visit, the Conservative party leader said: “My message is simple. We want Scotland to stay. We are all enriched by being together. Scotland puts the great into Great Britain.”
But his appearance in Scotland’s largest city was a low-key affair – hardly surprisingly given his party’s travails in Scotland. The Tories, the largest party in England, holds just one of 59 Scottish seats in the UK parliament at Westminster. Many Scots still blame Margaret Thatcher for the deindustrialization that ravaged many Scottish cities. When the former Conservative leader died last year, hundreds attended a celebratory street party in Glasgow’s main square.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which controls the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, has described independence as an opportunity to end Tory rule in Scotland forever. SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon dismissed Cameron’s visit, saying “We will be better off if all decisions on our future are made here in Scotland rather than by an out-of-touch Tory elite at Westminster.”
Although polling has consistently put the unionists ahead so far, there has been disquiet about Better Together, the cross-party “No” campaign supported by Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Opponents of independence have been accused of relying on a lugubrious message and of failing to make a compelling case for maintaining the union.
Recent reports that Westminster suppressed the findings of a government-funded opinion poll thatindicated a rise in nationalist sentiment have fed this narrative.
Bane or boon for the “no” vote?
But with the Sept. 18 vote to end the Union of 1707 only months away, Cameron is caught in an awkward position when it comes to Scotland, says James Maxwell, a Scottish political commentator at the New Statesman.
“The SNP accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say. Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing. [The SNP] are quite good at playing that populist anti-Tory card.”
While Cameron’s visit could possibly be a boon for his independence-supporting opponents, the British leader had no choice but to risk an appearance, says Maxwell. “If [Cameron] just systematically avoids Scotland for four months it would be awfully embarrassing, not just for him and for the conservative party but for the no campaign more broadly.”
Cameron has consistently rejected calls from Yes Scotland to participate in a live TV debate with SNP leader Alex Salmond. Some, like Arthur Midwinter, visiting professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh, believe that Cameron should go further and keep out of the independence campaign completely.
“My view is that Cameron should leave it to the Scottish secretary [Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael] to argue on behalf of the UK government and for [Labour MP and Better Together leader] Alistair Darling to speak for Better Together,” says Professor Midwinter. “Cameron should stay away from the campaign. I don’t think it’s helpful to have him coming here and presenting arguments. This is really a matter for Scots.”
But the prime minister’s visit could end up benefiting both sides in the independence debate, says Alex Massie, an experienced watcher of Scottish politics and a commentator for the Spectator.
“We are accustomed to viewing politics as a zero-sum game in which there is an identifiable winner and an equally identifiable loser. But the prime minister of the United Kingdom coming to Scotland to talk about the strengths and the advantages of the union is an exception to that general rule of political punditry,” Mr. Massie says. “I think it’s actually a win-win for both sides. Both sides will get out of it what they want.”
Nonetheless, he doesn’t expect Cameron’s visit to move the needle much overall. “The notion that this will have a major impact on the referendum is, I suspect, exaggerated.”
This piece originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.
EDINBURGH, Scotland — When David Cameron was here last week to call on Scots to reject independence from the United Kingdom, he did it by promising more powers for the devolved Scottish parliament.
Scots could have the “best of both worlds,” the prime minister argued. Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom would be “stronger, safer, more secure and more successful” inside the union if they vote “no” in a referendum planned for September, he said.
But that’s a message he’s struggled to get across.
With polls suggesting support for leaving the UK is slowly growing — even though the opponents of independence still maintain a clear lead — many are asking why the prime minister appears to be doing the minimum to save a three-century-old union.
Some of his obstacles are obvious.
The Conservative Party leader, who was privately educated and has a background in public relations, is often caricatured here as aloof and remote from Scottish concerns.
The Conservatives hold just one of Scotland’s seats in the British parliament in London and are deemed irrelevant in the devolved parliament here, which is dominated by the pro-independence Scottish National Party.
The internal party politics are less visible.
Cameron’s allies among Scottish Conservatives — whose official title is the Conservative and Unionist Party — have traditionally resisted the kind of devolution the prime minister is offering Scotland. The party called for a “no” vote in the 1997 referendum that led to the establishment of a Scottish parliament.
Pro-union parties have also been unable to agree on the shape further powers for Scotland would take in the event of a “no” victory on Sept. 18.
Independence supporters, for their part, point to history to argue the case that the prime minister can’t be trusted to keep his word: When Scots voted in an unsuccessful referendum on devolution in 1979, then-Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher promised to deliver an improved home-rule settlement if they voted “no.”
In the end, Scotland had to wait almost two decades for its devolved parliament.
“If a bearded transvestite can win Eurovision, I suppose anything is possible,” commentator Iain Macwhirter wrote in last weekend’s Sunday Herald about this month’s popular Europe-wide song contest. “But believing in more powers is a bit like believing Scotland could win the World Cup: it’s theoretically possible, but vanishingly remote and ruled out for the time being.”
The Scottish National Party (SNP) says only a vote for independence would guarantee more powers for Scotland.
“Nobody will believe Tory promises of more powers for Scotland because the last time that happened the only thing Scotland got was Thatcherism and 18 years of Tory governments we didn’t vote for,” Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond said last week in response to Cameron’s pledge.
The prime minister has also been put in a difficult position by the way the referendum campaign is shaping up.
While he’s refused to become seriously involved — maintaining the decision is for the Scottish people to make — and has rejected repeated offers to participate in a televised debate with Salmond, a “yes” vote would seriously damage his credibility.
Cameron is “caught in an awkward position,” says James Maxwell, a political commentator for the New Statesman. “The government don’t quite know how involved to get.”
The SNP has been good at playing the populist anti-Tory card, Maxwell adds. “They accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say,” he says of the UK parliament in London. “Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing.”
Although Cameron has a “clearer ear” for the Scottish debate than many of his Conservative colleagues, Maxwell says, “he is a right-wing patrician Tory with little or no electoral legitimacy in Scotland, so he is never going to play particularly well with the electorate here.”
Not everyone’s a critic, however.
Some have welcomed Cameron’s cautious approach to the referendum, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Scottish Conservative MP who’s called it “extremely wise.”
“Alex Salmond wants to turn this into a Scotland versus England issue, and particularly an SNP versus the Conservatives issue,” says Rifkind, a onetime Tory defense minister. “There’s no reason why the rest of us should play that game.”
Paradoxically, the independence vote may offer Scottish Conservatives their best chance in a generation to improve their dismal electoral fortunes at home.
A party commission is due to publish its proposals for further devolution in Scotland in the event of a “no” vote.
With previous proposals from the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties having received decidedly lukewarm receptions, the Scottish Tories have an opportunity to put some eye-catching suggestions on the table.
Measures thought to be under consideration include the full devolution of income tax.
“The Tories have a chance to stake out the radical ground,” Maxwell says.
Of course, any new powers for Edinburgh would depend on Scots heeding Cameron’s pleas and saying “no” in September.
This piece originally appeared in the Global Post.
Belfast – On Sunday morning, prominent Irish politician Gerry Adams woke alone in a cell in Antrim police station. By the following evening, the Sinn Fein president was stepping onto a podium at an election rally at the Devenish Centre, West Belfast as an 800-strong crowd chanted his name.
Adams, who smiled widely, did not look like a man who had spent four nights in police custody. He told cheering supporters that his arrest in connection with the 1972 killing of West Belfast mother of ten Jean McConville was “a sham”, but that Sinn Fein would not be diverted from “the job of building the peace”.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, ended the 30-year “Troubles” that cost over 3,000 lives. Since 2007, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has shared power with the Democratic Unionist Party in a devolved parliament in Belfast.
Concerns, however, are being raised about the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland. The murals and flags that line many streets across this country of just 1.8 million attest to on-going tensions between unionists, who favour a political union between Northern Ireland and the Great Britain, and republicans, who want a united Ireland.
Recent months have been particularly difficult. Attacks by republicans opposed to the peace process have been frequent. Early in the New Year, talks in Belfast brokered by US diplomat Richard Haass to resolve issues of the past, parading, and symbols collapsed without a deal.
In February, the devolved power-sharing government stood on the brink of collapse after the revelation that almost 200 republican paramilitaries wanted for crimes committed during the conflict had mistakenly been issued with letters informing them that they were not being sought by UK authorities.
‘The volcano will erupt’
Just last week, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers ruled out independent reviews into the killing of eleven civilians by British troops at Ballmurphy in 1971 and a 1978 IRA bombing that left twelve people dead
“The problem now is that events are coming along quicker than [the 1998 peace deal at] Stormont can deal with. In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery,” says Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. “It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.”
In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery… It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.
International onlookers have wondered aloud whether Northern Ireland might be on the verge of a return to violence. Gary White, a former Police Service of Northern Ireland chief superintendent, says it already has. “Over this last number of years we have had police officers killed, we have had soldiers killed, we have had prison officers killed, we have had many people injured, members of the public, members of the police and other security forces,” White says. “So it is a fact that violence is present in our society.”
An indication of the on-going friction in Northern Ireland came in December 2012. After a vote at Belfast city council to fly the Union flag on designated days rather than all year round, riots broke out in pro-union areas. As streets across the city were blockaded, Belfast effectively came to a standstill.
One of the reasons loyalists, who support the maintenance of the union with Great Britain, are so angry is that they feel they have lost out to republicans in the peace process, says Mark Vinton, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.
Vinton feels that the peace agreement has allowed republicans to further their political goal of Irish unification. Since 1998, Sinn Fein has become the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and is growing in popularity south of the border.
“Sinn Fein and republicanism have used the Agreement as a stepping-stone to further their own aims. So basically anybody that you speak to within a working class Unionist or loyalist community will feel massively let down, that it wasn’t an agreement at all, that there were shafted,” says Vinton.
Paying a peace divident?
Loyalists such as Mark Vinton say their communities have never received the much-vaunted “peace dividend” promised by politicians after the 1998 agreement that ushered in the historic power sharing arrangement between Catholics and Protestants.
“If you come into Belfast city centre you will see [it] flourishing,” he says. “But if you take a 10 minute sidestep to either side of North, South, East, West Belfast, you go into working class areas, you will then see the dividend that was meant to pay off peace-wise, has not paid off in those communities, they still live in mass deprivation.”
Ardoyne, a republican area in North Belfast, regularly ranks as one of the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Political tensions here have risen in recent months. Just across the “interface” that separates Catholics from Protestants, a loyalist protest has been ongoing since July, when a parade by the Protestant Orange Order was prevented from passing through a nearby nationalist area.
“Negative elements” are trying to manipulate and exploit tensions over flags and other symbols of identity, says Joe Marlay, a community worker in Ardoyne.
But life has changed for the better since the ceasefires, says Marlay, whose father was shot dead by loyalists. “The life I had sort of growing up, is not the life of my sons and daughters have now in our house. We had bullet-proof [glass] on the doors, and some of the windows, we had security gates on the stairs, we had our own security procedures [for] how we lived…. If we were driven to school in the mornings we had to check under the car for devices.”
Ghosts of the past
Nevertheless, fears are growing that demographic and social changes could put further pressure on the gains of peace. The 2012 census found that, for the first time, Protestants do not constitute a majority in Northern Ireland. Formal education is sorely lacking in working-class Protestant areas, and the local economy is still struggling to recover from the global financial crisis.
|Mistrust between unionists and republicans continues despite a peace deal signed in 1998 [EPA]|
Relations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in the devolved assembly at Stormont, are icy and getting colder with each passing week.
“The principles, the goodwill and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement are gone,” says Dr Jonny Byrne.
The Conservative-led coalition government in London has shown little appetite for involving itself in Northern Irish affairs. Prime Minister David Cameron is from a generation of Tories that have little psychological or emotional attachment to a peace process that was the product of Tony Blair and New Labour.
The failure of the British government – and its Irish counterpart – to engage with the situation in Northern Ireland is creating a power vacuum, says Steven McCaffery, editor of Belfast-based investigative websitethe Detail.
“The whole premise of the Good Friday agreement was that it was not an internal solution. There were three legs to the stool: there was London, Dublin and Belfast. The London leg and the Dublin leg have effectively fallen away, so the stool is wobbling.”
With a divided leadership in power at Stormont and growing tensions on the ground, any agreement on the past is likely to remain elusive. This makes the task of creating a shared future after conflict even more difficult.
“We don’t have an agreed narrative of the past from which to try to build an agreed vision of the future,” says Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, which campaigned for decades for an end to the sectarian conflict.
“In order to create the political stability, to create enforced power-sharing, the narrative of the past was set aside in the hope that as an executive assembly delivered real progress on the ground the pain of the past would recede. That hasn’t happened.”
This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera English.
Belfast, Northern Ireland – Seomra ranga – “classroom”, in Ireland’s indigenous language – reads a cardboard sign tacked onto a door. A little further down the hall, a leabharlann is filled with books. It is a very Irish scene, but in a very unlikely place: East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road.
Across the street, a mural commemorates the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Union Jack flags fly from lampposts in the shadow of the shipyards that built the Titanic.
In Northern Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language has traditionally been a largely Catholic pursuit. The overwhelming majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas.
But this might be about to change. The Turas Centre in the East Belfast Mission – turas means “journey” in Irish Gaelic – hosts 10 Irish-language classes a week. About 90 percent of those filing in and out of the seomra ranga and reading textbooks in the leabherlann are Protestant.
“The Irish language is part of our culture. It belongs to everyone,” said Linda Ervine, an Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission.
I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is.’
Ervine is the closest East Belfast comes to royalty: loyalist leader David Ervine was her brother-in-law; her husband, Brian, is like his late brother David, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.
From the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom
Linda Ervine’s soft voice and gentle manner bely a formidable passion for the Irish language – and for why Northern Ireland’s Protestant community should take it up.
“There is every reason why Protestants should be learning Irish,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of our place names come from Gaelic… We are using words in our language every day that come from the Gaelic language. We are steeped in it.”
On a nearby wall hangs a map of Britain and Ireland turned on its side, showing the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada, which spread across the north coast of Ireland and the western isles of Scotland in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.
Most Gaelic speakers in Scotland are Protestant, and when they came to Ireland during the Plantations, they brought their language with them, Ervine explained.
Ervine’s own turas to Irish began three years ago, when the women’s group she was part of at the East Belfast Mission took a starter course in the language. She was bitten by the bug and soon enrolled in an intensive course at an Irish centre in a nearby nationalist area.
Since then, Ervine has been travelling across Northern Ireland giving presentations and talks about the history of Protestantism and the Irish language. “We discovered that in the 1901 and 1911 census, people listed themselves as having Irish here in East Belfast,” she said.
Ervine is not the first figure from a loyalist background to shine a light on the Irish aspect of Ulster Protestant identity.
In the early 1990s, not far from where the Turas Centre sits today, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force – responsible for hundreds of killings during the 30-year-long “Troubles“ – painted a mural on Newtownards Road celebrating the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn as a defender of Ulster. The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group of the Ulster Volunteer Force, had “Lamh Dearg Abu” (Victory to the Red Hand) as its motto.
Mind your language
But many unionists have not been sympathetic to Ervine’s efforts to encourage Protestants to embrace Irish.
At a meeting of Down District Council in March, three Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) councillors walked out just minutes before she was due to give a presentation. UUP councillor Walter Lyons said the party “had to make a stand” because the Irish language was being “forced upon” unionists and “used against us”.
Earlier this year, George Chittick, Belfast County Grand Master of the Orange Order, an influential Protestant organisation, issued a “word of warning to Protestants who go learn Irish”. He later said his remarks were aimed at Protestants seeking funding for Irish-language projects – a thinly veiled attack on the Turas Centre.
The Orange Order’s criticism was “very sad”, said Ervine.
“I was invited to speak to the Orange Order shortly after that, and I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting Ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well, it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is’.”
Irish has official recognition in Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The peace deal also recognised Ulster Scots, a distinctive dialect spoken by some Protestants. But the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in a devolved government at Stormont, in Belfast, have blocked subsequent attempts to enact an Irish-language act.
In January, the Council of Europe criticised what it called Stormont’s “hostile” attitude towards Irish. Earlier this month, Irish language speakers marched in Belfast in protest over what they described as Stormont’s “failure” to protect the language.
“The ongoing failure to protect and promote the language in the courts, in public signage and in the education sector continues to unravel the promises made in the Good Friday Agreement,” said Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in a statement.
In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education. In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.
Despite government gridlock, Irish is thriving on the ground, said Eimear Ni Mhathuna, director of the Culturlann centre on the Falls Road in West Belfast.
“As we speak, a group from the Shankill [a nearby majority Protestant area] are doing an Irish-language course upstairs,” she told Al Jazeera.
Irish took off in West Belfast in the late 1960s, when a group of Irish-speaking families set up an urban Gaeltacht, the name given to an Irish-speaking area. In 1971, a school called Bunscoil Phobal Feirste began with nine children. Now there are 12 Irish-language primary schools in Belfast.
Colaiste Feirste, a nearby secondary school, has nearly 600 pupils, and St Mary’s College provides teacher training in Irish. Two of Belfast’s last three Lord Mayors – including the incumbent Mairtin O Muilleoir – have been associated with the West Belfast Gaeltacht.
“In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education,” said Ni Mhathuna. “In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.”
Back in East Belfast, Ervine argued that Northern Ireland’s rich linguistic diversity should be cherished as an opportunity to bring people together, not push them apart.
“As people in Northern Ireland, when we open our mouths we speak beautiful constructions of English, Scots, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. We are using all those words, all that syntax, because we as a people bring all that together,” Ervine said.
“I am trying to show people that you can’t divide people into these boxes. You can’t say just because someone is Catholic they should speak Gaelic, or because they are a Protestant they should speak Ulster Scots. It just doesn’t work like that.”
This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera English.