How would an indyref Yes affect Northern Ireland?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paul Mason – Kicking Off the Revolution

On a bright Saturday morning early last year, a bleary-eyed Paul Mason sat down to pen a blog for Newsnight, the BBC current affairs programme on which he is economics editor. The previous evening he had delivered a lecture on the 1871 Paris Commune to a collective of free thinkers and radical students in a squat in central London, before retiring to discuss technology, economics, and the revolt spreading across the globe over a few ales in Karl Marx’s old haunt, the Museum Tavern.

Mason’s blog post – entitled ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere’ – was a Martin Luther-nailing-his-95-theses-on-the-door-of-a-church-in-Wittenberg moment for the Occupy generation. Written in the penumbra of the Arab Spring, at the tail end of a winter of student occupations in the UK, Mason’s perspicacious analysis of the dynamics of the new political mood went viral almost as soon as it was posted. ‘Within 24 hours over 100,000 people had read it, people were retweeting it, posting it on Facebook, commenting on it. It was incredible,’ Mason says in the considered Lancastrian lint that has been a familiar feature of late nights on BBC2 for over a decade.

The Newsnight blog became the catalyst for Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason’s lively, thought-provoking ten-chapter jaunt through a world in tumult. ‘It’s not just a set of musings. It’s more like a series of glimpses into what’s happening around the world.’ Mason remarks of the book, which opens in a garbage collector’s house in Cairo and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our engaging correspondent popping up everywhere from Bakersfield, California to Syntagma Square in Athens in between.
Just as he is in person, on the page Mason is everything you would want from a guide: knowledgeable, measured, garrulous and unflaggingly generous. The long-form format also gives him the opportunity to flex his not inconsiderable intellectual powers, with theoretical and historical expositions on politics, society and, most prominently, economics added to the first-rate reportage that has become the hallmark of his Newsnight packages.

Speaking on the phone from his south London home, Mason says that what is happening today is nothing short of a ‘fundamental change in politics and society’. As he writes in the introduction to the book: ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in consciousness about what freedom means.’

Central to this thesis are two factors: the rise of social media and a burgeoning class of jobless graduates. The revolt in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last February is often referred to as ‘the first Facebook revolution’, but Mason, a social media acolyte with over 30,000 followers on Twitter, proffers a more subtle analysis of the power of technology: ‘What social media has done is allowed networks of protest to form. Now protesters can move faster, assemble faster and on a much more minimal basis than ever before.’

While Twitter and Facebook have changed ‘the dynamics of protest’, the protesters are changing too. The rigidities of the old Left – the seemingly endless marches, the inky newspapers – has given way to a new mobile, educated generation disillusioned with a system that offers little prospect of stable employment. These ‘graduates with no future’ – point number one on that seminal Newsnight blog post – occupy a vanguard role in Mason’s analysis: the similarities between the young, secular liberals in Tahrir Square and the occupiers in University College London, he argues, are greater than their differences.

‘This generation was already different – they live in a networked world. Their motto is ‘information wants to be free’. Now they find that their futures have been dashed, the jobs they were taught to expect aren’t there anymore.’ For Mason, the network changes everything: new, decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional structures and ideas in new, unexpected ways. Over time the power of the network will, he says, defeat the sclerotic hierarchies of established politics.

‘Mainstream politics stands in danger of quite rapidly being dissolved by the new political mood.’ A lifelong trade unionist with a passionate commitment to social justice that has defined his career, Mason prophesises the changing of the political guard more in expectation than trepidation. ‘The impact on politics of the networked generation is going to be very interesting. Eventually those on the streets will begin to look to parties and to politics – that’s when we’ll start to see changes.’

There are traces of the autodidact in Mason, who came late to journalism, abandoning a career as a musician because ‘I needed to make some money’. While Kicking Off Everywhere fizzes with the energy of the street, it also brings in healthy doses of critical social theory, from Marx all the way up to influential American sociologist of work Richard Sennett. It is an education in contemporary thought that Mason began while studying for a postgraduate degree in music in the early 1980s: ‘We sat around and read Das Kapital, we read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, at some leisure. Except during the holidays I never did a stroke of paid work.’

From Marx and Smith, Mason moved onto the current generation’s most obvious antecedents – the thinkers that inspired the 1968 student revolts, most notably the doyen of Situationism, Guy Debord, who argued that capitalism has replaced genuine social life with an inauthentic ‘spectacle’. ‘I wish mainstream politicians today had a little more exposure to those sorts of ideas, it might allow them to think a little bit more freely through the problems that they are confronting right now,’ Mason says.With one ear to the street and another to the boardroom, Mason knows better than most the sheer scale of the challenge facing politicians today. On the day the Sunday Herald spoke to the broadcaster, the latest bailout deal for Greece hangs in the balance, with bankers’ bonuses dominating the news headlines. Mason, whose last book Meltdown, was subtitled ‘The end of the age of greed’, is preparing to fly to the United States, which he contends could be the next country ‘kick off’. ‘It will take a lot for the poor of the US to rise up – but if they do they do, hold on to your hat,’ he says with the calm assurance of a man who has become an expert in spotting a storm brewing on the global horizon.

It is a far cry from the obscure trade mags that Mason cut his teeth on in the late 1980s. It was hardly glamorous but Mason quickly discovered he had found the career for him. ‘Journalism was a profession I liked. And it liked me. It used up all my creative energies, at least most of them.’ What was leftover went into fiction, which remained unpublished until the release earlier this year of Rare Earth a racy novel about a washed up TV reporter who stumbles across corruption – and a whole lot more – in Western China.

Mason wrote Rare Earth, which was based in part of his Newsnight investigations of corruption in China, in the back garden of the house he shares with his wife, an NHS nurse. It was the summer of 2009, and Mason ‘couldn’t get on the telly’. ‘The expenses scandal was raging and most people thought the crisis was over’.

As the continuing turmoil in the Eurozone attests, the meltdown began by the collapse of Lehman Brothers shows no signs of abating. Now in his early fifties, a time of life when many prominent BBC phizogs are to found fronting non-threatening documentaries, Mason continues to immerse himself in the white heat of the street, most recently in a series for Newsnight from a conflagration engulfed Athens. Such committed reporting won Mason ‘specialist journalist of the year’ at last month’s RTS television journalism awards.

Mason has no children himself but feels a gnawing obligation towards the next generation. ‘I am acutely aware of this fact: I have a pension, albeit it not a brilliant one. I have 30 years of intermittent work behind me. My education was free. I’m from a working class background. The level of insecurity in the minds of the people I’m observing is so high. I look at them and often wonder if I would have come out like I have today. I don’t know the answer.’

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions is out now, published by Verso, priced £12.99. Paul Mason will be appearing at Aye Write on March 10.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, March 4, 2012.

A satire on schooldays puts Paul Murray at the top of the class

In Ireland, small talk is not what it was. For centuries, Irish people chatted idly about the weather, then, for one crazy decade, it was difficult to buy a pint of milk without being invited to give an opinion on property prices. Now it’s the ever-worsening recession that is inescapable. “How is it in Longford?” novelist Paul Murray asks, as he waits for his decaf coffee, in one of the countless upmarket cafes that sprang up in Dublin during the boom. My Midlands hometown is typical of much of Ireland: boarded-up housing estates, spending cuts, redundancies, public anger. “Yep, it’s the same up here,” he says, shaking his head wistfully.

Murray, a fresh-faced 35-year-old, started writing Skippy Dies – his wonderful, dark, comic, Man Booker-longlisted second novel – seven years ago, when his native land was in thrall to a credit-fuelled spending bonanza. “It was such a selfish, narcissistic place then. Everything was lost in a psychosis of spending. The amount of kitchens that were put in on our street was incredible. Everyone got a new one – except us. We probably brought prices in our neighbourhood down by €80,000!”

In person, Murray’s anger at Ireland’s political classes is barely contained, but anyone picking up Skippy Dies expecting a polemical rant against Celtic Tiger consumerism will be sorely disappointed. Set in Seabrook College, a traditional Catholic boarding school in a posh Dublin suburb, the country’s “economic miracle” provides only the haziest of backdrops for the story of Ruprecht “Van Blowjob” Van Doren, an overweight 14-year-old mathematical whizz kid and string theory devotee, and his reticent, thoughtful best friend, Daniel “Skippy” Juster.

The book opens with the death foretold in its title and the succeeding 650-plus pages deal with the events leading up to Skippy’s tragic passing during an ill-advised doughnut-eating competition. As a panoramic view of public-school life, Skippy Dies is both hilarious and perspicacious, but to describe it as a “teenage comedy” fails to do justice to the sprawling world Murray has created. Here myriad, seemingly disconnected, themes – including cosmology, Ireland’s role in the first world war, quantum mechanics, Robert Graves, fairy tales and child abuse – all coalesce into a fast-paced, coherent narrative that zings with originality and invention.

A rag-tag cast of characters stalk the halls of Seabrook; porn-obsessed adolescents, lustful French teacher Father Green (“Old Pere Vert”), acting principal Greg “The Automater” Costigan, and his ill-fated history teacher Howard Fallon. Dubbed Howard the Coward by his unswervingly prescient pupils, the failed City banker and Seabrook old boy’s doomed dalliance with beautiful supply teacher Aurelie McIntyre provides many comic highlights.

Murray could almost pass for a slightly older version of Howard. Pale-skinned, blue-eyed, he wears his sandy-brown hair in an unruly mop; his slow, considered speech is peppered with scholarly references (Barthes, Nietzsche, the Second World War). “No, I’ve never been a teacher,” he says, looking surprised when I ask if the novel’s stilted staff-room interaction is based on insider knowledge. “I think I lack the ability to intimidate or project an air of imminent violence that you need to succeed as a teacher.”

Raised in affluent south Dublin, Murray attended Blackrock College, one of Ireland’s most illustrious secondary schools, and his experiences there provided ample inspiration for Skippy Dies. “I’ve seen what a class of 30 boys can do. They are able to pinpoint a person’s weak spot and just take them apart. It’s frightening,” he shudders slightly, eyes looking down at the table guiltily.

After terrorising teachers at Blackrock, Murray read English at Trinity College, Dublin, returning to his alma mater for his debut novel, the Whitbread-nominated An Evening Of Long Goodbyes. An energetic journey through modern Ireland seen through the eyes of a rich college drop-out, his first book’s success bought him the time and space to concentrate on an even bolder follow-up.

“When I finished the first book I thought to myself, ‘I’m free of a lot of the pressures that most writers have. I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have children. Now’s the time to go for it.’” Only, in 2003, Paul Murray had no idea just how big his second novel was going to be – in every sense.

The first draft of Skippy Dies clocked in at well over 1000 pages, a length even his literary hero Thomas Pynchon would balk at. “Initially my editor would suggest changes to the manuscript,” Murray says of the process of whittling down the original text. “Then one day, about six months before it came out, I’d a really bad hangover and I decided to just sit down and read it from beginning to end. It was over 900 pages at that stage and it just wasn’t working. By the end of the day I had got rid of 250 pages.”

The novelist’s swingeing editorial axe had the desired effect: Skippy Dies was published in February of this year to near universal critical acclaim, with Ireland’s foremost director, Neil Jordan, quickly taking out the film option. Murray also makes his debut at the Edinburgh International Book Festival later this month. And then, of course, there is the nomination for that literary prize …

“It was really, really strange and totally unexpected, to be perfectly honest,” he remarks of his appearance on the recently announced Man Booker longlist. An outsider for the prize proper – at least according to the bookies – the nomination has, nevertheless, given Skippy Dies something of a commercial kiss of life. “It is like a second birth for the book. People who never looked at it before are looking at it now. I would normally get about three emails a day but since the nomination there has been lots of interest.”

In the notoriously ego-driven world of literary fiction, Paul Murray is that rarest of beasts, a genuinely bashful writer. He shies away from praise of his work, and openly talks about the kind of self-doubts that plague most novelists, but which few would admit to. “No matter what you do as a writer, you’re always afraid that you’re going to run out of things to say,” Murray, who is currently working on novel number three, explains. “I think you’re always haunted by that fear.”

One worry that preys less and less on his mind is the place of the writer-as-artist in his home city. “For so long it felt that if you wanted to work as an artist in Dublin, you had to accept that you would never feel financially secure, you would never be able to own a house. You were forced to live in a society in which a really large chunk were being excluded,” says Murray, who recently moved from the middle-class suburb of Ranelagh in the south of the city to working-class Stoneybatter on the opposite side of the Liffey.

After more than two hours in conversation, we also decide to relocate to a nearby hotel for – predictably enough – a pint of Guinness. Sitting with his back to a row of pristine book-filled shelves in the library bar, Murray looks more comfortable than he has all day.

“I definitely find it easier to live as an artist in Dublin now. For a while you felt like such an outsider, the culture was so much about money and hedonism.” He pauses for a moment, taking a sip of his stout. “Thankfully that’s changing now.”

Skippy Dies is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton at £12.99. Paul Murray appears alongside Simon Rich on August 19 as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Piece first appeared in the Sunday Herald, August 16