Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Could Scottish independence realign Ireland, North and South?

imagesnpWhat a difference a century makes. In 1912 Ireland’s constitutional future seemed irrevocably bound up with that of Scotland. That year the Government of Ireland Bill was introduced by Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, shortly to be followed by a similar home rule measure for the Scots.

The rest, of course, is history. The first World War put paid to Irish and Scottish hopes of self-government within the United Kingdom. By the time the conflict was over, Ireland was fighting a war of independence. Scotland was only granted devolution in 1997.

Today, Scottish nationalists frequently adduce Ireland in their arguments for a Yes vote. On everything from sovereignty and citizenship to currency and border controls, Ireland is often held up as a model of how to sever a British union.

If the SNP view of Irish self-determination tends towards the Panglossian, official Ireland’s take on what is fast becoming “the Scottish Question” appears rather myopic. Recently Irish Government Ministers were told to be “very careful about expressing views” on Scottish independence. Hopefully this public reticence does not extend to the backrooms of Leinster House. Because regardless of which way Scotland votes, constitutional change looks increasingly inevitable.

In the North, nationalists have been similarly muted about the possibility of what Tom Nairn termed “the break-up of Britain”. Some excitable unionists have warned that a Yes in Edinburgh could spark a return to violence in Belfast.

Surely the prospect of a country roughly the same size as Ireland – one that is only 12 miles away at the shortest point – becoming an independent state could elicit a bit more than this curious mix of silence and shrillness? Scotland and Ireland share a long – and at times difficult – history; might they share a closer, more productive future, too?

The idea of an informal “Celtic alliance” encompassing Scotland and Ireland, North and South, is hardly revolutionary. The 6th century Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada, which stretched from Argyll to Antrim, was settled, according to myth, by Irish king Fergus Mór mac Erc.

Creative centre

The origin legend’s veracity aside, Dalriada was unquestionably a lively, creative centre that flourished across the Sea of Moyle. It was, as Neal Ascherson writes, “a Gaelic-speaking Atlantic world connected rather than divided by the sea”.

These connections did not end with the demise of Dalriada. During the Middle Ages, the almost independent Lordship of the Isles exerted power and influence on both sides of the Irish channel.

The Lordship of the Isles effectively ended when the clan Macdonald forfeited their estates and titles to James IV of Scotland in 1493. But three centuries later, United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken could still write gushingly that: “The Scotch and Irish friendly are/Their wishes are the same.” Our relations with Scotland, however, have not always been so amiable. The Ulster Plantations were a disproportionately Scottish affair: between 1650 and 1700, anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Scots left for the north of Ireland. The hundreds of thousands of Catholic Irish migrants to Scotland from the mid-18th century were often met with bigotry and discrimination. In 1923, a report entitled Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality was presented to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. But Scotland is a very different place from the 1920s. Orangeism has long faded as a political force. In 2002, the Church of Scotland apologised for “any part” it played in sectarianism.

Scotland’s Irish Catholic community has changed, too – not least when it comes to politics. At the 1974 general election the SNP won 30 per cent, but less than one in 10 Catholics voted for the nationalists. Historian Tom Devine believes Catholics are now more pro-independence than any other group in Scottish society.

Scottish nationalists

Northern Ireland, with its strong links to Scotland, has provided inspiration for Scottish nationalists, too. The Belfast Agreement demonstrated to many in the SNP’s upper echelons that moderation and pragmatism could produce seismic change.

Raasay-born poet Sorley MacLean envisaged Gaelic Scotland and Ireland as part of a single cultural continuity. The twin Gaelic cultures drifted apart for many years, but are arguably closer now than at any time since the 1940s. Perhaps the time has come for Dublin and Edinburgh to learn from this rapprochement.

Even a Scottish No vote in September is unlikely to signal the end of the constitutional story. Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy and Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser are among those who have recently taken to uttering the dirtiest F-word in British politics – federalism – in polite society.

A new settlement for Scotland would pose practical questions for Ireland. Edinburgh could look to compete on corporation tax, and to usurp us as the cuddly Celts on the edge of Europe.

But political change in Scotland could also be a unique opportunity for Ireland – North and South – to forge a stronger relationship with its closest neighbour. A new Dalriada anyone?

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Could Scottish independence realign Ireland, North and South?
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