Scotland’s Independence Generation

On Wednesday lunchtime, a bagpiper heralded the arrival of Gordon Brown at a community hall in Glasgow. Once the music faded out, the former prime minister launched into a speech that has already been hailed by some as the oration that saved the union. Amid a cheering crowd waving ‘no thanks’ placards Brown, with a fiery intensity often missing in office, called on supporters “to stand up and be counted”.

The following day, Scots did just that, voting stay in the United Kingdom by a margin of 55 to 45 on a record high turnout of over 84 per cent.

Historians might credit Gordon Brown’s late intervention with swinging the vote back to the unionist side, but throughout Scotland’s two-year long campaign nationalists consistently failed to convince Scots that they would be better off in an independent state. What the yes side did do – in towns and villages across the land, often using social media – was persuade thousands of political neophytes and old stagers to become actively involved in probably the biggest grassroots political campaign Scotland has ever seen.

yesOn Wednesday, as the crowd was on its feet applauding Gordon Brown in Glasgow, councillor Willie Clarke and Michael Payne sat chatting about the referendum vote in the backroom of the Benarty community centre, fifty miles, away in the former Labour leader’s Fife constituency. Both men had spent the past six months campaigning for a ‘yes’. Almost every week hundreds of locals – some who had not voted for years – packed into the centre in this small, former mining village to hear visiting speakers and participate in debates.

“I’ve not seen anything like this in terms of public meetings. The last time I saw this community galvanized like this was the miner’s strike,’ said Payne, the community centre’s manager. The 1984 miners strike – and its defeat – cast a dark shadow across Benarty. Unemployment is high and jobs are scare for those living in Benarty’s rows of pebble-dashed terrace houses set on an escarpment below low, tree-topped hills. “The solidarity is still there. It died a bit after the miner’s strike but it’s back now,” said Payne.

Scotland’s referendum was a direct result of the Scottish National Party winning a majority in elections to the devolved parliament in 2011. But the roots of the disquiet that led almost half of Scots to vote to leave the 307-year-old union with England are etched in the landscape in places like Benarty. Deindustrialization has left this once self-sufficient community reliant on welfare and public sector jobs. Politics has changed, too. Labour no longer enjoys a monopoly on power in the old pit towns; Scottish nationalists, and the very idea of independence, has caught the imagination of a long-neglected population.

As everywhere else in Scotland, the pro-independence side was by far the most visible in Benarty on the eve of the referendum. Saltires hung in the breeze out of second floor windows. In the car park, half a dozen vehicles sported blue ‘yes’ stickers on their windows. There was just a solidary ‘save the union’ badge.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re going back to the 40 and 50s for a campaign like this,’ said councillor Willie Clarke. When we last met in the spring, Willie Clarke seemed friendly but tired. On Wednesday, he was ebullient, taking at length about the campaign – and its aftermath. “I’m very encouraged by what’s happening,’ he said as we drove through the former mining towns of central Fife. Shops were boarded up. “I believe that Scotland will be an independent nation, if it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it but it’ll happen.”

That evening, just twelve hours before polls opened, several thousand independence supporters filled Glasgow’s George Square, transforming this normally rather staid collection of statues and grey asphalt into a carnival. A middle-aged woman meandered slowly through the crowd with a sign that read, ‘Scotland don’t be scared’. Hipsters walked across the square with ‘yes’ stickers in their beards, a young couple wearing matching ‘Ja’ badges pushed a pram. Conga lines started up; people chanted ‘Scotland’ to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’. At one end of the square, political speeches gave way to rave music in the gloaming. Near the city chambers, rows of uniformed police separated a small group of far-right protesters waving Union flags from the much larger mass of yes supporters.

Few were talking about the referendum itself. Those that were thought the latest polls – showing a four-point lead for the no campaign – had underestimated the size of the yes vote. ‘We can win this,’ said a topless busker in a kilt.

Scotland’s yes campaign was often characterised by an optimism that bordered on blind faith. Many supporters were drawn less to a Braveheart vision of Scottish nationhood, and more to a belief that the political system in London was beyond reform. The 20-somethings clambering on the George Square statues, chanting ‘yes, yes, yes’, on Wednesday looked like protestors in Puerta de Sol in Madrid or Istanbul’s Gezi Park – with added Saltires and Scotland football tops.

“I’m absolutely disgusted by Westminster. Not by the UK, not by England, I’m disgusted by Westminster,’ said June Dickson, 50, from Livingston in central Scotland. A Scottish flag by her side, Dickson complained about the expenses scandals and the war in Iraq. (Iraq was a turning point in modern Scottish political history: just over a decade ago, over 50,000 people marched in Glasgow against the war. Alex Salmond rarely failed to mention the Scottish National Party’s opposition to the invasion – or Labour’s support of it).

Ms Dickson’s brother, Lawrence, was killed by the IRA in sniper in south Armagh in 1993. “My brother fought and died to protect his people, the people of the UK, a UK he thought was an equal, just country. I don’t see how anyone can look at the UK now and say it’s any of those things,” she said, holding back tears.

Irish-born SNP Glasgow councillor Feargal Dalton stood under a plinth in the middle of George Square waiting for his teenage son to emerge from a sea of blue and white Saltires, peppered with Basque, Catalan and even Serbian flags. Nearby people posed for photos beside a life-size Loch Ness monster cuddly toy. “I’m nervous,” Dalton admitted.

He was right to be. That the George Square party was more wake than celebration would only become clear in the small hours of Friday morning – as the results began to pour in from across Scotland – but even on Thursday morning, as polls opened, there were signs that the visibility was not the same as support for the yes campaign.

In Easterhouse, a sprawling 1960s—era housing estate on the outskirts of Glasgow, yes placards hung from almost every lamppost and seemed to occupy every second living room window. But most of the people trickling in and out of the St Rose of Lima primary school seemed, quietly, to be voting for the union.

“I think we’re better together,” said Marie Doherty, a local mother. She was worried about the prospects for North Sea oil and the economic stability of an independent Scotland. “My husband has voted no, too,” she said.

Easterhouse is Scotland’s political apathy capital: less than 35 per cent here voted in the 2011 Holyrood elections. The yes campaign hoped to win the day by coaxing the apathetic out of their stupor with promises that ‘Another Scotland is Possible’. But for some the no campaign’s negative messages – warning of the dangers of independence – won the day. “I don’t normally vote at all but I was worried about this so I came out to vote no,” said one local woman.

On Thursday, Easterhouse, like the rest of Scotland, was a story of quiet nos, and loud yeses. Just after lunch, a cavalcade of mothers pushing prams turned up the path to the polling station. In unison they sang “Flower of Scotland”. They wore ‘yes’ t-shirts and badges, and waved flags as small children ran among their buggies.

“These past few weeks I think Scotland’s found a voice. We know now that we don’t have to settle for what the government give us,” said Tracy, a mother who had organsied the group to come en masse to vote.

“I want to have a better future for my kids, for my grandkids,’ she said. “Scotland is going to be very different tomorrow either way. If it’s a no vote it gives these kids the chance to say “we can do it”. If we don’t do it they will.’

As Thursday night slipped into Friday morning, even the most ardent independence supporters were forced to admit defeat. No scored victories in all but four of Scotland’s more more than 30 electoral areas. (Glasgow, however, did vote for independence). On Friday morning, a dozen or so independence supporters sat drinking beer and waving their flags in an empty George Square. “I’m devastated,” said one teenager, in between sips of Tennent’s. The mood was one of quiet despondency, not riotous anger.

The question now is where Scotland, and its newly mobilized generation, goes from here. It is too early to tell if Westminster can offer a devolution settlement to satisfy Scotland’s growing sense of self-determination. If it can’t, the Scots may be on the streets again, and next time rousing cries to ‘stand up and be counted’ might not be enough to save the union.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 21/09/2014.

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. 

Book review – Austerity: A History of a Dangerous Idea

The discovery of an error in an academic economics paper – even one authored by a pair of Harvard dons – is hardly most people’s idea of a headline grabbing news story. But that’s exactly what happened, in April, when a professor at the University of Michigan and an undergraduate student published data that revealed a serious coding mistake in a spreadsheet in Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogof’s paper 2010, ‘Growth in a Time of Debt’.

Why was this headline news? Because Reinhart and Rogof’s research – which putatively showed that economic growth falls off a cliff once a state’s debt exceeds 90 per cent of Gross Domestic Product – provided the intellectual ballast for the on-going waves of ‘growth friendly fiscal consolidation’. That’s austerity, to you and me.

But, as Mark Blyth shows in this timely, authoritative account of the history of ‘cuts for growth’, the economic rationale for austerity was pretty diaphanous long before Reinhart and Rogof’s Excel boo-boo was unearthed.

austerityFor Blyth austerity (‘voluntary deflation’) is ‘a dangerous idea’ because ‘it doesn’t work in practice, it relies on the poor paying for the mistakes of the rich, and it rests upon the absence of a large fallacy of composition that is all too present in the modern world.’

After World War I, austerity was the policy of choice on both sides of the Atlantic, a process accelerated after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The result, as any Junior Cert student can tell you, was, eventually, war. (In Germany, the Nazis were the only party opposed to austerity policies being pursued in the interwar years. They pledged to take the country off the gold standard and to actively increase employment. They did this — by building a war economy.)

Why then, 80 years later, when the global financial system went into meltdown, did world leaders turn again to austerity? The answer is that in narrow (but influential) circles, particularly in the US, the core ideas of austerity, inspired by rightwing Austrian economists – a minimal role for the state, cutting government spending, relaxing labour laws – never went out of fashion. And in one European state a version of austerity was being practiced for decades: Germany.

Tracing the lineage of the ‘the German ideology’, in Blyth’s homage to Karl Marx, is one of the book’s most useful contributions. Teutonic ‘Ordoliberalism’ has become the economic dogma of the continent, and particularly in the Eurozone. Which is great, as Blyth notes, ‘so long as you are the late-developing, high savings, high-technology, and export-driven economy in question’. For the peripheral PIGS, it’s awful and, worse, pointless. No matter how much it drives down wages and cuts back government services, Greek exports will never be able to compete with German exports.

Blyth has a terse explanation for the current economic travails: they ‘started with the banks and will end with the banks.’ The crisis unleashed in 2008 had nothing to do with government spending – Ireland’s net debt was 12 per cent GDP in 2007, this year it is expected to top 117 per cent – but arose from negligently over-leveraged banks hitting the wall. The cost of bailing out the banks was a sovereign debt crisis that we are still wading through with little prospect of shore in sight.

Austerity is often presented as TINA: ‘there is no alternative’. Blyth, however, has no truck with the ‘we all partied’ line and the moral puritanism that sees a post-bing purge as necessary purification. Instead he draws on reams of economic history to show that austerity as a road back to growth has seldom, if ever, worked.

He also has a good rummage around in austerity’s ideological baggage, from its roots in the Scottish parsimony of John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith (the author himself hails from a working class household in Dundee) through to the impassioned anti-statism of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Economically austerity is self-defeating, since if we all reduce spending at the same time we all grow poorer. What it has done is consolidate wealth in the hands of the already rich: in the United States, the top seven percent saw their average net worth increase by 28 percent between 2009 and 2011. For the remaining 93 per cent it dropped by 4 per cent.

So if austerity makes most of us poorer and only prolongs recessions, what is the alternative? Blyth is a respected academic economist, as the pages of footnotes attest, and he wisely counsels against pain-free solutions. His proposals – higher taxes and ‘financial repression’, such as capping interest rates on government debt – would not be without their opponents. But, as this timely book shows, austerity isn’t working, and it’s not about to start.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post

Book Review — The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

On Monday, September 19, 1977, Lykes Corporation of New Orleans announced that, by the end of the week, it would close Campbell Works, the largest mill in the blue collar Ohio city of Youngstown. That day, which became known locally as ‘Black Monday’, was the latest in a long line of body blows for a once prosperous city.

By the late 1980s, Youngstown, with a population of less than 100,000, was among the top ten cities in the United States for homicide. It led the country in the murder of black women under 65.

Youngstown’s story epitomises what New Yorker writer George Packer calls ‘the unwinding’: a historical epoch in which old political, social and economic models break down, where ‘everything changes and nothing lasts’.unwinding

Crisis, as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted, ‘consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’ Packer’s is a reporter’s journey into this material and existential crisis as it unfurls across the US, from the derelict lots of Youngstown, Ohio to the foreclosed dream homes in the sun in Tampa, Florida, via the Ayn Rand acolytes in Silicon Valley and the corridors of power on Washington and Wall Street.

Packer has been consistently among the world’s top non-fiction writers and ‘the Unwinding’ is his tour de force, uncoiling over 400-plus pages to reveal the inner workings of modern America through the stories of three very different characters. Dean Price grew up in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where everyone ‘had Scotch-Irish names that fit neatly on a tombstone’. The son of a racist tobacco farmer, Dean has an epiphany in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – oil will run out, eventually. His life becomes a battle to convince skeptical Piedmont Republicans of the virtues of alternative energy and small-scale, local industry.

Dean loses everything – his house, his family (more than once), his business – but never his optimism. ‘[T]o me this is the greatest economic explosion that’s ever going to hit in our lifetimes, because all the money that’s being concentrated at the top, with food, fuel, clothing – what else do they control? banking – it might go back to little towns. I can see that happening.’

Occupy Wall Street appears late in the book – in a expertly weaved chapter about the disappointments of life in corporate banking and, ultimately, in the encampment at Zuccotti Park – but the protestors’ ‘We are the 99 per cent’ mantra provides the Unwinding’s unspoken leitmotif. The closest any of Packer’s central characters get to the omnipotent top percentile is in the form of Jeff Connaughton.

As a 19 year-old at the University of Alabama, Connaughton is inspired by a speech from a young Delaware Senator named Joe Biden. After law school, Connaughton – who describes himself as ‘the perfect number two’ guy – slowly begins to immerse himself in Washington: working on Biden’s ill-fated 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns (with little thanks from the current vice-president); enriching himself as a lobbyist; eventually winding up as a senatorial aide opposing Obama’s appointment of the same Wall Street scions who had overseen the crash to clean up the mess. Jaded, Connaughton quits DC and moves to Savannah, Georgia where he spends his days writing about his time in Washington. The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins was published last year.

Finally there is Tammy Thomas, a pugnacious Youngstown African-American who overcomes a heroin-addicted mother and a teenage pregnancy to secure a “job for life” in the factory. She raises her kids drug-free in a city choked by crack. She loses her job when the factory was asset-stripped, and is defrauded of most of $48,000 savings. But she remains indefatigable: building a new life for herself, and her neighbors, as a community organizer.

Subtly, yet relentlessly, Packer constructs his individual characters, and through them the character of his homeland. Here real incomes have not risen since the 1970s.  ‘As wages stayed flat, debt kept more and more families afloat’.

This new America needed new idols, too, and Packer supplements his character’s stories with pen portraits of Sam Walton, Jay-Z, and others. Most effective is the opening pair, Newt Gingrich – the New Right doyen who was among the first politicians to understand ‘the new rules of celebrity’ – and Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah’s motto (‘Go, girl. Go for it.) was an open invitation to her millions of viewers. And if they don’t manage to emulate her success? “[S]ince there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.’

The Unwinding is a fascinating journey through an America that has largely remained hidden from a view. There are echoes of Don DeLillo’s Underworld in the scope of Packer’s vision and his deft eye for language and detail. There is a lugubriousness to this book, too, despite early protestations that ‘the unwinding brings freedom’.

It is not “Morning in America” any longer; the question now is whether the gloom is a precursor to a new dawn, or a long dark night.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.

‘Peace Dividend’ for Northern Ireland Economy?

On 15 August 1998, a car filled with a 500 pounds of fertiliser explosive was left outside S.D. Kells’ clothes shop in Lower Market Street in Omagh. At ten past three on a busy Saturday the bomb detonated. Around 220 people were injured and 29 killed in the blast, the heaviest death toll of any single terrorist atrocity during the Troubles.

Fifteen years on from the Omagh bomb, Northern Ireland looks like a very different place. Republicans and loyalists now share power in a devolved government at Stormont. The violence and terror that characterised life in the North for 30 years prior to the Omagh bomb has largely disappeared.

But as Northern Ireland edges towards normality, how has its economy changed? Is business in Northern Ireland in 2013 in better shape than it was in August 1998?

The answer is not as clearcut as Belfast’s glass-and-steel skyline might suggest.

Titanic-Belfast-Operator-2Back in 1998 the unemployment rate in the North stood at 5.1 per cent. During the boom years of the early 2000s it went as low as 3.1 per cent. But according to figures released this week, joblessness in Northern Ireland is currently 7.5 per cent.

‘To an extent not much has changed economically in Northern Ireland,’ says Paul McFlynn, an economic specialist at the Nevin Economic Institute. However, while the dole queues have lengthened, the number of jobs and people in work has grown significantly too.

The numbers of economically inactive in Northern Ireland has fallen from 34.4 per cent in 1998 to around 30 per not. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland still has higher levels of benefits claimants than other regions of the UK. Youth unemployment remains a serious problem, with around one in five young people not in education, employment or training (NEET). Real hourly earnings are today back to their 2003 level.

Like in the rest of Ireland, the north’s housing market witnessed a huge boom and bust in the years following 1998. Between 1997 and 2007, average house prices in Northern Ireland grew by 250 per cent. Since then house prices have fallen by 53 per cent, far outstripping the average 18 per cent drop recorded across the rest of the UK.

Economists at PwC in Belfast warn that it could take a decade for house prices in Northern Ireland to return to their 2007 peak. ‘While some types of property in popular areas of Northern Ireland are demonstrating real recovery, average property prices have some way to go before they are clearly on the turn,’ says PwC Northern Ireland chief economist Dr Esmond Birnie

‘That means real recovery in the property market will be long, difficult and wholly dependent on factors ranging from reduced household debt to more liberal lending policies’.

Dr Birnie, however, does see reasons to be cheerful. Northern Ireland’s manufacturing and construction sectors are reporting increased demand and orders and exports have risen. The latest Northern Ireland Economic Outlook, published by PwC this week, forecasts economic growth of around 0.5 per cent in 2013, possibly rising to 1.5 per cent in 2014, assuming continued steady recovery in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

However, in terms of job creation, exports and forecast economic growth, Northern Ireland is demonstrating the slowest recovery amongst the 12 UK regions, well behind London and the South East, which are expected to grow in 2013 by 1.2% and 1.5%, respectively.

Tourism is one area that has improved considerably since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Back in 1998, 1.4 million people visited Northern Ireland, spending £217m. In 2012, almost 4 million people spent a night in Northern Ireland, contributing an estimated £683 m to the local economy. Titanic Belfast, which opened last year, had 800,000 visitors in its first twelve months.

Business leaders are hopeful than events such as this summer’s G8 meeting at Lough Erne will encourage investment in Northern Ireland. However, many remain sceptical about this prospect, especially given escalating unrest on the ground, first over the flying of the Union flag over Belfast city hall and, more recently, parading routes.

Northern Ireland remains a very testing retail environment, with around one in four units in Belfast empty, the highest rate in the UK.

‘Fifteen years ago everyone was talking about the ‘peace dividend’, that really hasn’t emerged in any great form,’ says economist Paul McFlynn.

The challenge now, as the block grant from Westminster is reduced annually amid spending cuts in London, is to find a political and economic solution that will work for all of Northern Ireland. ‘You have a situation where you have a political settlement reached in the good times. Now it’s coming into its more mature phase and the money has dried up and you are seeing every crack and fissure starting to emerge,’ McFlynn said.

‘What we need now is a genuine attempt to have some kind of local ownership of the direction of Northern Ireland’s economy.’

A Co-operative Alternative

Despite the successes of the last fifteen years, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. As recent unrest attested, sectarianism is still a major problem, especially in and around the ‘peace walls’ that separate nationalist and unionists communities. These interface areas are characterised by social problems, high unemployment and low levels of economic activity.

An imposing, 800-metre long multi-level corrugated iron barrier divides the loyalist Shankill road and the republican Falls road at Cupar Way, in West Belfast. Tensions often run high, particularly during the summer marching season, but a new initiative is attempting to promote reconciliation and economic growth on both sides of the interface.

Three years ago, Trademark, the anti-sectarian unit of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, helped to establish the Belfast Cleaning Society, a worker’s co-operative based on the interface at Cuper Way. The co-operative has grown steadily. It won the contract for this month’s Tennent’s Vital concerts in Belfast. Not having an owner taking a profit has allowed the business to undercut competitors while also paying a fair wage. Union Taxis, a cross-community co-operative taxi company, based on the interface is due to open later this year.

The Belfast Cleaning Company is owned and run by eight women who live on both sides of the interface. Cross-community enterprises have proven difficult to sustain but a co-operative is well-placed to manage workplace challenges posed by external political events such as the recent clashes over parading.

‘There have been tensions in the co-op as we have workers from republican and loyalist backgrounds. But the co-op is different because the relationships are vital to its success, and because you don’t want them to break down you have to face up and talk about problems,’ says Stephen Nolan, co-director of Trademark.

‘In most workplaces in Northern Ireland people are taught not to talk about these things.’ A study conducted by Trademark last year found that 44 per cent of private sector employees had experienced sectarian harassment.

A Nation Once Again?

I wrote a long piece on Scotland’s independence referendum, with a particular focus on the Irish community in Scotland, for the Sunday Business Post. Here it is:

Standing on the banks of the River Clyde, at the Broomielaw in Glasgow, on a warm summer’s day it is hard to believe that this was once one of the busiest quaysides in the British Empire. There are no ships, and few people. A handful of stray tourists take pictures beside the imposing cast iron mooring posts.

On these same mooring posts, unused today, boats from across the world would once have been tied up. Many were steamboats laden with passengers that came from across the Irish Sea: in the 19th century the Broomielaw was scene of one of the largest migrations in the history of Britain, or Ireland. With little or no belongings thousands of Irish emigrants would have walked the hundred metres or so from the teeming dock to the centre of Glasgow, and, from there, to a new life in industrial revolution Scotland.
paddlesteamers, broomielaw, 1890 MI_4011_4681
Half a million Scots of Irish descent – and the rest of the country’s population of some five million – could be about to embark on another journey. Although this time without going anywhere.

Next September, Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum on independence. A ‘yes’ vote will spell the end for the three centuries-old Act of Union and usher in the birth of a new Scottish state.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s pugnacious First Minister and the leader of the Scottish National Party, has said he is ‘confident’ of winning next year’s vote. Opinion polls suggest he faces an uphill battle – support for independence rarely rises above 30 per cent. All the main UK parties, including Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, are firmly against the prospect of Britain breaking up. ‘Better Together’, a cross-party campaign calling for a ‘no vote in 2014, has been formed, headed by former Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling.

Scotland does not feel like a country riven by political rancour. Beyond the occasional saltire on a flagpole, or ‘Yes Scotland’ bumper sticker, there are few overt manifestations of nationalism, or unionism, on the streets of Glasgow. This is not Belfast, with its atavistic politics and exaggerated public displays of fealty, but surface appearances belie deep divisions between supporters and opponents of Scottish independence. And there are many Irish-Scots on both sides of the debate.

‘I don’t think economically or socially independence is a good idea,’ Michael Mahon, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Uddingston and Bellshill, a constituency on he outskirts Glasgow with a high concentration of Scots of Irish descent. ‘I say that not because I am an Irish Catholic but because I represent a constituency that I think would be better off in the United Kingdom.’

A former welder, with a broad chest and an easy manner, McMahon speaks fondly of growing up in an Irish household in a mining town in Lanarkshire: ‘It was Irish music, Irish culture. We’d celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, not St. Andrew’s Day’. However, this enthusiasm for all things Irish did not extend to politics. ‘I don’t see this connection between Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism that some people do. I just don’t get it.’

When we meet for coffee in an upmarket hotel overlooking George Square, Glasgow’s main civic space, McMahon is sporting a ‘United with Labour’ pin on his lapel. United with Labour is another platform advocating a ‘no’ vote, created by the Scottish Labour Party, many of whom are uncomfortable sharing a stage with Conservatives in Better Together. The Tories remain deeply unpopular in Scotland where the legacy of Margaret Thatcher remains a toxic one: there is just a solitary Conservative member of parliament north of Hadrian’s Wall.

celticIf Michael McMahon represents Scotland’s established Irish community, Feargal Dalton is the face of the fluid new generation. Born in Monaghan and raised in Dublin, Dalton came to Scotland in his 20s, as a member of the British armed forces. Dalton, 40, retired from the services in 2010, and last year was elected as the SNP representative for Partick on Glasgow City Council.

‘Like many immigrants to Scotland, I quickly began to ask myself why wasn’t Scotland in full control of its own affairs. With this in mind, I looked at the political parties and policies on offer and voted SNP at the first Holyrood election and every subsequent election,’ Dalton, who became a physics teacher after leaving the armed forces three years ago, says.

‘It wasn’t until I became a husband and father in 2006 that I joined the SNP. Having now established roots in Scotland, its future became a very real and personal issue. Like most parents, I want what’s best for my children. A very simply but significant part of that, is to grow up in a country that has the confidence to govern itself.’

Independence, Dalton says, ‘will give Scotland greater control over its economic future. This will allow Scotland to become more prosperous but a fully sovereign Scottish parliament will also allow us to build a fairer Scotland.’

That Scotland is seriously talking about independence at all can, at times, seem remarkable. Back in 1995, George Robertson, then Labour shadow secretary of state for Scotland, confidently predicted that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson was trying to appease sceptical unionists and it looked, for a time, as if he was right. Labour dominated the first decade after devolution in 1997.

But all that changed in 2007, when the SNP won a narrow victory in elections to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. Then, in 2010, a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in London, despite the Labour voting actually increasing in Scotland. The following year Alex Salmond’s party surprised everyone – including themselves – by achieving the seemingly impossible, an overall majority in the Edinburgh parliament and, with it, a mandate for a referendum on the party’s flagship policy, independence.

The SNP’s success is down, in part, to an ability to attract the Irish Catholic vote that was once the bedrock of the Scottish Labour party, says Peter Lynch, a lecturer in history at Stirling University and an expert on Scottish politics. ‘At the last couple of elections you had a lot of Catholics voting for the SNP. At the 2011 it was a huge number, more than voted for Labour’.

‘Twenty years ago what would divide the SNP and Labour was more Catholics voting for Labour but the religious thing is gone now,’ said Dr Lynch. This ‘religious thing’ was the fear among Irish Scots that Scottish nationalism was inherently anti-Catholic. It was a not a baseless concern: in the early days of the Scottish National Party (which was formed in 1934 by a merger of two smaller nationalist parties) some leading lights did espouse anti-Catholicism.Andrew Dewar Gibb, who held a as senior office within the SNP, wrote in overtly racist terms about the Catholic Irish community in Scotland in his 1930 book Scotland in Eclipse.

Earlier this year, firebrand leftwinger George Galloway warned Catholics in Scotland to ‘be careful what they wished for’ in the 2014 referendum. Galloway was a Glasgow Labour MP for almost 20 years, but is now better known for his turns on Big Brother and in front of the US senate. His comments were roundly critcised as out of touch and out of date.

‘I’d go so far as to say that the SNP is now a more natural home for the Irish community in Scotland. The Labour party has taken the Irish Catholic vote for granted and given them nothing in return,’ says Kevin McKenna, former executive editor of the Scottish Daily Mail. The SNP has pledged to support Catholic schools as long as they are wanted, a key concern of the Irish community in Scotland. ‘You get the impression that the SNP are trying to reach out to the Catholic community in Scotland,’ says Kevin McKenna. Alex Salmond has spoken regularly of the important role of the Catholic Church in Scottish life, although he has clashed with the hierarchy over his support for gay marriage.

‘It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of Irish Catholics are considering trading their loyalties from Labour to the SNP, although whether what would result in a vote for independence is another matter,’ says McKenna, whose great grandparents came from county Waterford at the start of the 20h century.

In January, McKenna caused a stir when he wrote in his weekly column in the Scottish edition of the Observer that the union with England becomes ‘more difficult to support’ with ‘each passing week’. The article was shared almost 15,000 times on Facebook.

‘Afterwards people said ‘why have you turned into a nationalist’. I said, ‘I haven’t’. I could find myself voting for Scottish independence but I’ll never be a Scottish nationalist. For me Scottish nationalism is quite far away from the internationalism I’ve been brought up to embrace. We’ve the chance to bring those international values into an independent Scotland, values that England seems to be moving further and further away from.’

One of the more curious aspects of debates about Scottish nationalism is how rarely debate is framed in terms of ‘identity’. In some respects the call for Scottish independence does resemble the small state nationalism of the late 19thand early 20th century – a desire for ethnic self-determination that mobilised nationalists in Dublin, Belgrade, Warsaw and myriad cities, towns and villages across Europe. And, for some Scots independence is undoubtedly about creating a ‘Scottish state’, in counterpose to an England-dominated United Kingdom. But most independence supporters cite political, not ethnic, differences to explain their desire to leave the union.

‘Lots of Scottish people aren’t bothered about identity in an ethnic sense. It’s not a vote winner. Salmond always talks about ‘the people of Scotland’, the people who live here, not ‘the Scots’,’ says Peter Lynch. ‘The identity you are talking about is shared political values and ideology.’

The electoral geography of Britain has changed enormously since 1955, when the Conservatives won a majority north of the border in a general electkon. Now more than three-quarters of Scots vote for centre-left political parties – the SNP and Labour – while England, particularly the southeast, votes Tory. This pattern, initiated in the 1960s, accelerated under Mrs Thatcher, as Scotland’s industrial heartlands rusted and the democratic deficit that saw Scotland return swathes of Labour MPs to a Conservative-dominated Parliament in London widened into a yawning chasm. Nowadays in Scotland ‘Tory’ is more likely to be used as a putdown than as a badge of political affiliation.

The breadth of these political variations has increased since Dave Cameron came to office in 2010. Controversial welfare reforms and privatisations, particularly of the National Health Service, have been deeply unpopular with many Scottish voters. London is often accused of being out of touch with the problems of post-industrial Scotland: unemployment, drug addiction, an under-developed private sector. Meanwhile, the SNP government at Holyrood has used policy to attempt to differentiate itself from Westminster: refusing to levy tuition fees on Scottish university students, introducing free prescriptions and pledging to ring fence the NHS as a wholly public service.

The Scottish government’s long-term ability to maintain a generous welfare state has been called into question – especially without tax hikes – but its commitment to a more expansive state reflects a growing disparity between the political cultures on both sides of the border.

‘In Scotland there is a huge middle and working class social democratic electorate who believe that beating up the poor is bad, that the sick should be protected,’ said Dr Lynch. ‘That’s a really mainstream broad category that 80 per cent or more of the voters will find attractive and they are themes that Yes (Scotland) will focus on in the referendum campaign.’

These are themes that chime with Danny Boyle, a 27-year-old community worker from Glasgow. Like around a third of Scots, Boyle says he has yet to make up their mind on independence, but describes himself as ‘edging towards voting yes’, primarily because of what he sees as the divergence between politics in Westminster and in Scotland.

‘I was brought up in a typical Glasgow Irish family: Catholic Church, Celtic football club, Irish music, Gaelic football,’ he says. ‘I was brought up with traditional Labour politics, solidarity and social justice.’

Boyle was initially supportive of New Labour but quickly became disenchanted over the party’s 13 years in power. ‘There was huge excitement in 1997 (when Tony Blair won a landslide) but what actually transpired was the broadening of the gap between the rich and the poor, the illegal war in Iraq, the deregulation of the banks.’

Although his parents were ‘solid Labour voters’, Boyle says that for the younger generation of Irish Scots nationalism is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition. ‘The experience of my parents with Scottish nationalism and the SNP 30 years ago was vastly different to now,’ he says. ‘Much of what was happening then was tied up to what was going on in the North of Ireland.’

The cessation of violence in Northern Ireland has certainly made it easier for Scottish nationalists to sell a vision of a stable independent Scotland where Protestants and Catholics (the vast majority of whom are of Irish descent) could co-existence peaceably. The Orange Order in Scotland are no longer the force they once were, although several thousand attended the annual ‘Orange Walk’ which was held in Glasgow city centre last weekend.

Sectarianism remains part of life for many, particularly around Glasgow’s footballing Old Firm, Celtic and Rangers. But there seems little fear in the Irish community that an independent Scotland would presage a rise in religious intolerance. ‘Sectarianism is a massive problem but I don’t think independence would make that worse. It will still be there whether we are in the union or independent,’ says Paul Cruikshank, a Catholic Glasgow law student.

Cruikshank intends to vote ‘no’ next year, partly because he fears that independence could make Scotland more insular and parochial. ‘There is a concern that if we were an independent country we would fall back on the short-bread tin image of ourselves – the haggis, whisky, Robert Burns.’

‘Most of my family are definitely voting no’ in next year’s referendum, says Cruikshank, who is a Labour party member. The cultural ties that bind Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly northern England, are among the main reasons for staying in the union, he says.

‘The north of Scotland and the south of England are very different places but the further south you go in Scotland and the more north you go in England, the more similarity there is culturally.

‘I don’t see myself as any different to another 20-year-old from another industrial city in the north of England.’

Labour MSP Michael McMahon shares this view. ‘When I was a union rep I would go to conferences across the UK and meet people from the same background as me from Newcastle, from Birmingham, from Liverpool, from London. I thought ‘I have more in common with these guys that with a Gaelic speaking crofter from the Western Isles’.’

The Better Together campaign has placed a heavy emphasis on this shared sense of British identity. The recent royal celebrations and last summer’s London Olympics seemed to elevate Britishness across the UK. Preliminary polling of younger Scottish voters – 16 and 17 year olds will have a vote in next year’s referendum, under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement between Cameron and Salmond – found that many feel a stronger affinity with Britain and Britishness.

Irish Scots might be assumed to have little investment in this conception of Britishness, but Peter Lynch thinks there are aspects of British identity that could appeal to the Irish community. ‘What Irish Scots are comfortable with are aspects of Britishness around welfare policy, defence, issues like that,’ he said. ‘If you can tap into those socio-economic issues, Britishness could be a good constituency for the Irish.’

Yes supporter Colette Campbell is less convinced. ‘I don’t think there are that many people who are proud to be British, particularly in Scotland,’ says the 24-year-old mother of two. Her family traditionally voted Labour but ‘most are now swayed towards yes’.

Campbell suggests that independence could be an opportunity to improve relations between Scotland and England. ‘The relationship would be much better if we were independent, it would be two countries relating to each other.’

And what if an independent Scotland was a failure? It could rejoin the United Kingdom. ‘Some of my friends are a bit nervous that Scotland couldn’t be a successful country. But at the end of the day we could always say ‘we got it wrong’ and they could take us back,’ says Campbell.

While Scotland considers whether or not to leave the UK, Britain itself could be on the verge of a historic departure – from Europe. Battered from the right by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and his own restive Eurosceptic backbenchers, David Cameron has pledged an ‘in/out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union after the next general election.

While the noughties rallying cry of ‘Independence in Europe’ has been silenced, Alex Salmond senses that the prospect of an UK exit from Europe could push floating voters to the independence cause. ‘The Scotland/Europe platform was a huge advantage to the SNP in the Nineties,’ Scotland’s first minister told the New Statesman last month. ‘Because of what’s happened in Europe and the Eurozone it was becoming a negative. Now it’s swung back to being a strong positive. Scots are much more comfortable about being an independent country in a European context.’ Scotland has consistently been the most pro-European part of the UK – although even here support for the EU is running at only around 50 per cent in opinion polls.

In the event of a ‘yes’ vote next year, even opponents of the SNP seem confident that the country’s political classes would be capable of running an independent state. ‘Scotland has produced a lot of good politicians: Donald Dewar (Scotland’s inaugural first minister), (Labour leader) John Smith, who would almost certainly have been prime minister,’ says Paul Cruikshank.

‘As much as I disagree with Alex Salmond, I think he is a good politician. He has charisma and the ability to lead the country.’

Reflecting on political scandals in London, SNP councilor Feargal Dalton believes Scotland would be better served by running all its affairs locally. ‘We need look no further than Westminster with the MPs’ expenses and cash for access scandals. Holyrood has not been beset with such scandals, probably owing to its greater transparency,’ he said.

Scottish independence rarely features in public discussion in Ireland, and when it does its imbued with a degree of skepticism. Dalton attributes this weariness on the part of his compatriots to Ireland having reached ‘established country cynical stage’.

‘I have had taxi drivers in Ireland and people down the pub saying ‘why don’t you stay as you are’. That’s Ok when you have a written constitution, when you can vote off Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. We don’t have that,’ he said.

Peter Lynch sees another reason for Irish misgivings about a new independent state on its doorstep. ‘Irish politicians will probably want a ‘no’ vote because we are going to be trouble for them in terms of international trade and European institutions,’ he said.

Ireland has certainly influenced aspects of Scottish nationalist thinking. In 2006, Alex Salmond called on Scotland to join ‘Northern Europe’s arc of prosperity’, alongside ‘Ireland to our west, Iceland to our north and Norway to our east’. The SNP have abandoned talk of Irish success in the wake of the crash, but nationalists still look across the Irish Sea for policy proposals. Take corporation tax. Salmond recently announced that in an independent Scotland corporation tax would be just 17 per cent, lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Economic questions still remain about an independent Scotland. What currency would it use? How would it fund itself? The Treasury in London has warned that an independent Scotland, bereft of Westminster subsidies, would suffer financially. Nationalists respond by citing the country’s oil reserves – around 90 per cent of North Sea oil is in Scottish waters – and potential in areas such as renewable energy.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, says journalist Kevin McKenna. ‘I simply don’t believe that we would become a medieval, third world country, as the no side are depicting. But I don’t believe the nationalist rhetoric that we would become like the Nordic states,’ he said.

‘I suspect there won’t be that much difference, economically, so why wouldn’t you want your country to be independent?’

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 14 July, 2013.

Fracking Could Leave Fermanagh ‘a toxic, industrialised swamp’

Later this month, world leaders including Barack Obama and David Cameron will meet in the picturesque surroundings of the Lough Erne hotel in Fermanagh. Northern Irish politicians are hoping that the G8 summit will encourage tourism in the region, but many local campaigners believe that Fermanagh’s fabled natural beauty could be destroyed by plans for fracking in the county.

_58298320_fracking‘The whole purpose has been to draw attention to the idea that these leaders are going to Fermanagh because it is so beautiful but the minister (for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the DUP’s Arlene Foster) is determined to permit extensive use of a technology that would render it a toxic, industrialised swamp,’ Northern Ireland Activism Co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth, Niall Bakewell, told the Sunday Business Post.

Hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – is a process of recovering gas and oil using a high-pressure water mixture pumped into holes drilled into shale rock. Fermanagh has emerged as the battleground between opponents and supporters of fracking in Ireland.

While attempts to frack elsewhere have largely come to standstill, Australian exploration company Tamboran Resources has a license to drill for gas in Fermanagh. Tamboran are expected to start fracking next year, with eighteen hundred well bores set to be drilled in west Fermanagh.

‘The result will be the industrialisation of this area,’ said Donal O’Cofaigh of the pressure group Ban Fracking, which has organised a protest in Enniskillen on Monday 17 June, the day the G8 begins.

Last year’s s G8 summit issued a communiqué strongly backing fracking, which has been carried out extensively in the United States.

Next weekend, in Belfast, the largest demonstration against the summit is expected to take place, with trade unions, human rights groups and development and environment NGOs all involved. However, turn out is expected to be much lower than the 150,000 estimated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The PSNI issued a series of warnings to would-be protesters ahead of next weekend’s demonstrations. More than 100 cells at Northern Ireland’s high-security prison, Maghaberry, have been set aside for the two-day event. Surveillance drones and 3,600 police officers from other parts of the UK are being drafted in to work alongside local police

‘The media and the police have said protesters are out for violence. We are saying “there will not be any violence” but people are being put off,’ said Donal O’Cofaigh of Ban Fracking in Fermanagh. ‘If we got everyone opposed to fracking out on the street we’d have a huge crowd.

A Model for Belfast Regeneration?

The amount of vacant land in Belfast city centre is equivalent to the size of 265 football pitches, according to the Forum for Alternative Belfast. If this space was used efficiently, at least 50,000 more people could live within 20 minutes walk of central Belfast without the need for high-rise buildings or the destruction of green spaces.

undera12northqueenstNext week, Forum for Alternative Belfast (Fab), a not-for-profit organisation run by a group of architects and planners, will launch the first ever architect’s scale model of Belfast in an effort to change how people – and politicians – think about regeneration in the North’s capital.

‘Belfast needs an integrated approach to housing and to stitching the city back together,’ Mark Hackett, an award-winning architect and the Forum’s co-director, told the Sunday Business Post.

‘The city centre is the part of the city that anyone would want to live in but (in Belfast) it is actually the most dysfunctional part of the city.’

‘Belfast: A Method’ is a 1:1500 scale model of the city centre, highlighting all the buildings, streets, and also the vacant space. Constructed out of plywood in the University of Ulster’s digital fabrication facility, the model will be open to the public from May 2, in Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery.

The idea for a Belfast model arose from the Forum’s involvement at the British pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Similar city models were successfully used in Berlin in the early 1990s, in Dublin’s Temple Bar and, more recently, in Boston.

‘These kind of models are very important. People can look at drawings all day long but they cannot get the same assessment of scale, mass, topography that you get in three dimensions,’ said Martin Barrett, an architect and proprietor of Oscar and Oscar, a design and reclamation business based in Belfast.

Four years ago the Forum for Alternative Belfast produced Missing City, a map that identified and plotted all the unused land in the city centre. Now, as Belfast city council prepares for the return of formerly centralised planning powers, the hope is that the scale model will stimulate debate about the need for regeneration in the city.

‘A lot of the reports and plans we’ve had over the last fifteen years don’t get to the heart of the problem,’ Mark Hackett said. ‘There are parts of the city that don’t work.’

Over the last 35 years the population of Belfast has decreased by 35 per cent. This decline in population is particularly evident in inner and central city areas that have been decimated by the impacts of roadinfrastructure, low-density housing redevelopment and the proliferation of car parks. Many parts of the city, particularly the East, West and North, feel disconnected from the city centre.

‘Most good cities have a sense of themselves, a sense of the civic,’ said Mark Hackett. ‘Belfast kind of lacks that, it has developed into sectors that are not really connected, not just because of the Troubles but also because of the development of its infrastructure.’

Earlier this month, planning permission was granted for the redevelopment of the former Maze prison site, near Lisburn, on the outskirts of Belfast. Most of the H blocks architecture, which formerly housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles, was demolished following the prison’s closure in October 2003.

The new Maze development will include an £18m peace centre designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, and funded by a European Union grant, and an agricultural centre. The project is expected to create several thousand jobs but there are fears that it could exacerbate Belfast’s on-going suburbanization.

As well as vast tracts of vacant space, Belfast city centre is scarred by a large number of low-quality developments. Permissive planning has, said Fab’s Mark Hackett, led to a focus on development for its own sake.

‘Politicians aren’t brave enough to say, “Ok we want development but we don’t want development at any cost”.

This piece appeared in the Sunday Business Post 28 April, 2013.

Scotland’s Unstated Writers

Unstated – an edited collection on the theme of Scottish independence – has already caused what Scots would call a stramash. The uproar began in December, just days before the volume was published, when excerpts of Alasdair Gray’s contribution, ‘Settlers and Colonists’, appeared in the Scottish press.

Gray contended 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 impact was explosive. Gray, a scion of Scottish literature and the author of modernist classicLanark, was decried as a racist in some quarters; in others, he was celebrated as a teller of uncomfortable truths.
Unstated
Battle lines were hastily drawn. The Booker Prize winning novelist James Kelman – who is also represented in Unstated – came out in support of his fellow Glaswegian. Another west of Scotland writer, the Guardian columnist Deborah Orr, accused Gray of that gravest of literary sins, ‘parochialism’.

The most unfortunate aspect of the furore over Gray’s essay is not that many of those commenting had not read it – although clearly they had not; in full, it is a clumsy piece of writing but far less salacious than the headlines that greeted it – but that is has detracted from what is in the main a prescient and thoughtful anthology on one of the more surprising aspects of life on these islands (Ireland and Britain) right now: the rise of Scottish nationalism.

Next year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. For the first time since 1922, the United Kingdom may lose a limb. If Scotland does vote ‘yes’ – a rather big ‘if’ given opinion polling – Europe will have a new nation; Ireland a new sovereign neighbour. This is pretty seismic stuff – as the strength of European Commission opposition to an independent Scotland automatically joining the EU attests.

Unstated compromises more than twenty-five essays, poems and reflections on this inchoate political dispensation from some of Scotland’s best known literary figures: alongside Gray and Kelman are offerings from Kathleen Jamie, James Robertson and Tom Leonard. The collection reflects an antinomy at the root of contemporary Scottish cultural life: the country is in the midst of arguably the most significant outpouring of cultural nationalism in a century, as Hames seems to recognise with a nod to Patrick Geddes in his perspicacious introduction, and yet ‘nationalism’ itself remains a rather dirty word.

‘By inclination I am not a nationalist by inclination,’ writes Glasgow-based novelist and playwright Suhayl Saadi in his self-consciously quixotic yearning for a more equitable state. Kevin MacNeil cautions that, ‘(n)ationalism is a poison that heals when taken mindfully and in appropriate measure but destroys utterly when taken in excess.’

Most of the writers gathered in Unstated, though not all, are willing to take a risk a sip from the hemlock cup embossed with the ‘n’ word. Even among supporters, however, the vision of an independent Scotland is hardly romantic; indeed pessimism about the future, inside or outside the UK, runs through much of the collection.

‘The truth is obvious,’ opines Jo Clifford, ‘we are part of a disunited kingdom whose other title really should be Insignificant Britain. Mediocre Britain.’ That the National Health Service emerges as a leitmotif is not as surprising as first appears: the much loved NHS, a symbol of the putative egalitarianism of the post-war generation, is in the process of being privatised by Tories south of the border but remains relatively unscathed in devolved Scotland.

In the early 1990s, sociologist David McCrone dubbed Scotland ‘a stateless nation’, a country without a state but with a strong sense of distinctive culture. Douglas Dunn teases apart this linguistic separateness in a fittingly lyrical poem about Scotland’s ‘three sound tongues’; English, Gaelic and Scots.

Evocations of Ireland often serve to highlight our differences. Inverting Yeats’s famous dictum, Janice Galloway declares that, with the Conservatives in power in Westminster, ‘a terrible beauty is on the slouch.’

Galloway, one of the most acerbic voices to have emerged from Scotland in the last 30 years, neatly sums up the dilemma facing her compatriots next autumn: ‘All we have to lose is what we signified – a jumble of mean-spirited stereotypes, our lost regiments and regimental glories, our status as the last kick of Empire, our sense that somehow we deserve not only less than we hope for, but a smack for getting big ideas in the first place.’

Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. Edited by Scott Hames is out now, Published by Word Power Books. This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 3 February, 2013. 

Belfast Unrest – the View from the Interfaces

Belfast is often described as a patchwork quilt of conflicting loyalties. Most residents live on streets that are overwhelmingly nationalist or unionist. Imposing ‘peace walls’ physically divide communities one each another. This has long been the case on the Suffolk estate in West Belfast, where a small Protestant community of less than a thousand people are separated from the much larger Catholic population in Lenadoon.

During the Troubles, tensions between Suffolk and Lenadoon often ran high, particularly when the latter grew quickly in the early 1970s with the influx of many Catholic families displaced from other parts of Belfast. Since the ceasefires, relations between the two communities have calmed significantly; last year, as part of a government-backed scheme, loyalist paramilitary murals in Suffolk were removed, flags were taken down and a new art work created on the interface.

But tensions across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface have ratcheted up since loyalist protests against the Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the union flag from City Hall on fifteen designated days a year rather than continuously began in early December.

Protests have taken place ‘every night’ in loyalist Suffolk, said Paddy O’Donnell, a director of the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project, a cross-community social enterprise business that abuts interface. ‘What has also appeared are massive union jacks as high as they can be raised,’ he said.

Michael Doherty, a member of the management committee of the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group (SLIG), agreed. ‘Since the flag protests a load of union jacks have gone up on the interface, the road has been blocked (by loyalist protesters) and some cars have been attacked.’

While violence in East Belfast – most of it centred around the interface between the nationalist Short Strand and the unionist Newtownards Road – has dominated news headlines and many police officers injured, the unrest seems to be having a destabilising effect on other interfaces across Belfast. So-called recreational rioting, much of it organised by youths on social media, has increased across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface in recent weeks.

‘Relationships have been damaged,’ said Paddy O’Donnell. ‘All our work is based on relationships. When those relationships are damaged it takes people to come out and put their head above the parapet to try and start rebuilding them. It’s difficult but it can be done,’ he said.

Issues of identity and territory are seldom far away in north Belfast, a four square mile patchwork of sectarian enclaves where kerbstones turn from red, white and blue to green in a matter of footsteps. The troubles had a disproportionate impact on north Belfast: just 5 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population live in the area, yet it accounted for a fifth of all those who lost their lives in the conflict.

The on-going loyalists protests have not spilled over into violence in north Belfast but the disturbances have ‘destabilised things’, said Rab McCallum, co-ordinator of the North Belfast Interface Group, which has its headquarters on the nationalist Cliftonville Road.

‘It is not happening on our doorsteps but it is a reminder of what happened in the past,’ he said. ‘It does have a negative impact on community relations in North Belfast. This (violence) does not create confidence it brings back fear. It brings the physical fear back into play again.’

In nearby Tigers Bay, John Howcroft, a community worker and former loyalist political prisoner, has found cross-community engagements have been ‘more unpopular and difficult’ since the protests began. Political leaders, on both sides of the peace walls, must shoulder the blame for the violence, said Howcroft.

‘Politics has laid the foundation for this path that people are on. Politicians has to take responsibility for this – they should have been focusing on education, investment and employment, things that would have made a real difference in people’s lives,’ he said.

Unemployment in Tigers Bay runs at over 50 per cent. In many nationalist interface areas, jobless rates are just as high. Across the city, life expectancy is ten years lower near the interface; rates of mental illness, depression and family breakdown are all higher in the shadow of the peace walls. Increased use of alcohol, drugs and prescription medication is closely correlated with proximity to peace lines.

‘We have the same issues in both communities,’ said John Howcroft. The same is true across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface, said Paddy O’Donnell from the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project.

‘Both areas suffer from acute unemployment. There is acute criminality. There is prescription drug abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse. There’s more off licences, take away shops and chemists than you can shake a stick at,’ he said.

Michael Doherty would like to see nationalists and unionists from both sides of protesting together, not about flags or symbols but about the swingeing budget cut that the Executive at Stormont has implemented in recent years. ‘We should be out there together protesting about social and economic cutbacks from Stormont.’

While the unrest has raised tensions across Belfast, the violence has been largely confined to East Belfast, said Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research and an expert on interfaces. ‘A lot of the disorder is largely confined to East Belfast, which seems to resonate with the summer of 2011 (when there was serious unrest in the East of the city) and the particular dynamics of the UVF in that area’. Last week Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott confirmed the involvement of senior Ulster Volunteer Force figures in the violence in East Belfast.

Those on the interface are watching closely to see where the protests go from here. ‘They can carry on being a nuisance and a problem but will it grow? As long as they can maintain the numbers at City Hall (where protests have been taking place every Saturday since the flag was removed) they could continue but it is difficult to see how it would grow unless something stupid happens,’ said Neil Jarman.

As long as the protests continue, criticism of the PSNI seems certain to grow. Willie Frazer, one of the self-styled leaders of the Ulster People’s Forum, which has emerged from the flag protests, has blamed the unrest in East Belfast on ‘wrong policing’. Many nationalists say that the police have treated loyalist protesters too leniently, pointing to the example of the twenty-six people arrested for participating in a sit-down protest at a disputed Orange Order parade in Ardoyne on 12 July 2010.

‘Are we going back to political policing? There seems to be one law for the loyalists and another for us,’ said Michael Doherty. ‘People in this community are saying ‘we thought policing had changed’, but in reality we are looking at the police facilitating (loyalist) protestors. That has caused considerable anger.’

Community leaders on both sides are worried that the recent unrest will culminate in a fatality, with potentially massive repercussions for the North. ‘Our experience tells us that these things only go one way. They lead to violence, they lead it death. People need to step back now before there is a death,’ said John Howcroft, from loyalist Tigers Bay.

‘It’s politics that created this mess, and only politics will solve it. Are the politicians ready for that?’

Bringing Down the Barricades?

More than two-thirds of people living near peace walls in Northern Ireland believe the barriers are still necessary, a study conducted by the University of Ulster last year found.

While almost 60 per cent of residents in interface areas said they would like to see the walls removed, only 38 per cent of residents believed this would actually happen.

‘Removing the wall is the easy bit. It’s getting to the stage where they can be taken down that’s the challenge,’ said Dr Jonny Byrne, one of the authors of the study.

Almost one hundred peace walls separate nationalist and unionist communities in Belfast. There have been some minor successes in recent years – such as the opening of a ‘peace gate’ in the corrugated iron fence that has divided Alexandra Park in North Belfast since 1994 – but the vast majority of barriers remain.

The unrest around the flag at Belfast City Hall could make the task of removing some of the peace walls even more difficult. ‘The majority of people want the peace walls to come down when the time is right, but this (violence) makes that harder,’ said Rab McCallum, co-ordinator of the North Belfast Interface Network.

The University of Ulster study found a much higher level of pessimism about removing the barriers among Protestants than Catholics. McCallum has seen this first hand in North Belfast, where most peace lines are located.

‘This is a stronger concern among people in the Protestant community that the wall will come down and they could lose their identity.’ Their fears are not groundless: around 80 per cent of those on housing list in North Belfast are Catholic. ‘People feel that they are being squeezed. It’s not a balanced situation, Protestants feel much more threatened than Catholics.’

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 201/01/2013.