LRB Blog: Project Fear

Nate Silver told the Scotsman last month that there was ‘virtually no chance’ of a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum: ‘If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definite really where the No side is at 60-65 per cent and the Yes side is about 40 per cent or so.’ The comments were hardly revelatory, but they were seized on by media on both sides of the border as evidence that the independence campaign should pack up and go home. A few days later, Silver told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that he was less than happy about the way his throwaway remarks had been interpreted. ‘Taking a comment based on a thirty-minute interview that becomes front page news is not the precedent I want to set,’ he said.

With a year to go till the vote, both sides seem more interested in quoting wildly divergent opinion polls than discussing policy. One poll at the beginning of September gave the No side a 30 per cent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a Yes vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

One reason for the variation in the polls may be that for most Scots it isn’t a straightforward question of in or out. The week before Silver’s appearance in Edinburgh a Panelbase poll commissioned by the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland found a 2 per cent lead for the No side. More interestingly, it also found a significant hunger for further devolution – and scepticism of unionists’ vague promises of more powers for Holyrood. Sixty per cent of respondents said that welfare benefits should come under the Scottish Parliament’s purview, and more than half said that oil revenues and taxation should be controlled from Holyrood. But few thought any of these powers would be devolved in the event of a No vote in 2014.

The Wings Over Scotland poll received little media attention. (There was a fluff piece in the Scottish Daily Mail about Scots being more scared of a Tory government than space monsters.) More powers for Holyrood – the so-called ‘devo-max’ option that most Scots would prefer to either independence or the status quo – is a conversation few in Scottish politics want to have. Yes Scotland is wary of appearing as defeatist twelve months before a referendum that many have waited a lifetime for; the Better Together campaign encompasses a wide spectrum of unionist opinion, some of it opposed to any devolution at all. ‘The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood’s powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored,’ according to the former Lord Provost of Glasgow Michael Kelly.

Few people would bet on a vote in favour of independence – one Glaswegian punter recently wagered £200,000 on a No in 2014 at odds as short as 1/6 – but unionism is less ascendant than (some) polls suggest. Better Together’s awkward alliance of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties will come under greater pressure as the 2015 general election approaches. Earlier this year, Scottish Labour, anxious to distance itself from the unpopular coalition parties, started a separate campaign for a No vote, United with Labour.

Better Together’s negative campaigning may also backfire. In recent months, they have warned that independence would bring checkpoints at the border, mobile phone roaming charges south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the deportation south of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. Privately the official No campaign is said to refer to itself as ‘Project Fear’. ‘Next they’ll be saying there will be seven years of famine in an independent Scotland and that aliens will land here,’ the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish has said. ‘Scots don’t like to be talked to like idiots and there has been a constant haranguing of Scots by Westminster in terms of the type of campaign being run. This could create a backlash as Scots want to know what vision of Scotland within the Union the Unionists are campaigning for. If there’s another year of this people will start to rebel.’

– See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/09/18/peter-geoghegan/project-fear/#sthash.hJx0DBJy.dpuf

Aye or nae? Scottish teens will vote on independence

Most days after school, Sean Garcais and his friends ride their BMX bikes in North Kelvin Meadow, a patch of scrub land in the west end of Glasgow. They build ramps, try new tricks. Sean and his friends are like 15- or 16-year-olds anywhere else in the world, but with one difference: Next year they will all have a say on the future of their country’s independence.

Under the Edinburgh Agreement, which sets out the terms for Scotland‘s independence referendum in 2014, 16- and 17-year-olds will have a vote. The legislation that will enable them to vote in a United Kingdom plebiscite for the first time ever is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament atHolyrood, in Edinburgh.

Today, the Referendum Bill Committee will report to Parliament, and a debate in the chamber is scheduled for the following week. But the lowered voting age is almost certain to be passed into legislation later this summer. It is longstanding policy of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which dominates Scotland’s devolved Parliament.

The SNP has said that it backs lowering the voting age in order to enfranchise more youth in a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. “No one has a bigger stake in the future of our country than today’s young people,” said the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister, when the bill was introduced in March. “And it is only right that they are able to have a say in the most important vote to be held in Scotland for three centuries.”

But some see a political interest in the SNP’s support.

Politicians only gave young people a vote “because they think we will be more radical,” says Sean, who is a student at Glasgow’s Hillhead High School. “I’m not sure about it myself. I might vote yes, I might vote no.”

Some of his friends share his ambivalence. Others say they are firmly in favor of independence for Scotland. But when asked if they will actually vote in the referendum, the youthful bikers respond with cacophony of “ayes” and “yeses.”

Annie McFadyen firmly supports the proposal. “I think we should get a chance to vote – we can drive a car, get married, but aren’t allowed to vote.” The 15-year-old Glaswegian is in little doubt about how she will vote. “I’m for it. I’ve got strong views on the whole topic but I’ve got friends who aren’t bothered either way,” she says.

More nationalistic?

Young Scots, like their peers across the world, increasingly get information from social media rather than from traditional sources such as television news or newspapers.SNP-Scottish-independence-referendum-debate

This is an important change, says James Mitchell, professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. “The big issue rather than the election is how we engage with this new generation that is coming through that don’t read newspapers.”

Access to information will be an important factor on how 16- and 17-year-olds vote, agrees Isla MacLennan, head of modern studies at St. Margaret’s Academy, Livingston, a school of around 1,200 students in central Scotland.

“Young people, generally, are more likely to be nationalist. It comes from a place of Scottish pride and the Tartan Army [the supporters of the Scottish national soccer team],” she says. But that nationalism “may be not that thought out. That’s what we are trying to do in our classes,” she says.

Recently, Ms. MacLennan staged a debate and a mock vote in class. Before the debate, a majority of students said they were against independence. After the discussion, 60 percent voted in favor.

But Professor Mitchell rejects the popular assumption that young people are likely to be more nationalistic, and more likely to vote for independence. “It will be very interesting to see if 16- and 17-year-olds vote differently, but I don’t think that will happen,” he says.

And even if they do swing one way more than the other, Mitchell does not expect the youth vote to be a difference-maker. The age bracket makes up around 3 percent of the Scottish electorate. With such small numbers, young people are unlikely to be a decisive constituency in 2014. Just getting them to the ballot box could prove a challenge.

“Young people are less likely to vote than older people, so I’d expect turnout among young people to be low,” says Mitchell.

An eye toward the future

Among the advocates of votes at age 16 are the Scottish Youth Parliament, a non-party political assembly that meets three times at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood to discuss issues that affect young people and suggest solutions.

In the 2009 Scottish Youth Parliament elections, 65 percent of the 32,000 14- to 25-year-olds across Scotland who voted backed a proposal to extend the vote to 16-year-olds.

Allowing young people to vote “will give the referendum, whatever the result, more credibility,” says Kyle Thornton, vice chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament. “For 16- and 17-year-olds this is something that will change their entire life – the effect of it will be seen 30, 40, 50 years from now.”

One factor that may sway the minds of young voters is the promise of greater participation for 16- and 17-year-olds in an independent Scotland.

“If Scotland votes yes, I find it inconceivable that we won’t have votes at 16 and 17 in Scotland after that,” Mitchell says.

“But it is also possible that many of the people who think that votes at 16 will bring the sky down will wake up the morning after a ‘no’ vote and say, ‘maybe it’s not such a bad idea. We gave votes to women, votes to the working class, maybe we should give votes at 16.'”

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. 

Ulster Covenant’s Scottish Resonances

THE prospect of independence in Scotland is a world apart from the quashed Irish bid for home rule in 1912, writes Peter Geoghegan.

“THE DARK eleventh hour draws on and sees us sold to every evil power we fought against of old.” So begins Rudyard Kipling’s poem Ulster 1912. Now fondly remembered as the hirsute creator of The Jungle Book, Kipling was a passionate agitator on behalf of the Protestant cause in the north of Ireland. After refutations of Rome rule and English duplicitousness, Ulster 1912 ends with a rather fateful proclamation: “We shall not fall alone.”

Kipling’s poem, penned almost a century ago, was a passionate paean to a pivotal event in Irish history that celebrates its centenary today – the Ulster Covenant. Almost half a million Ulster men and women put their names to the covenant, in protest at the then-Liberal government’s intention to introduce home rule in Ireland. Sir Edward Carson, erstwhile MP for Trinity College, Dublin and, later first prime minister of Northern Ireland, was the first signature, at Belfast City Hall. Similar signing ceremonies were held across the north, with crowds gathering to pledge their fealty, if not quite to the United Kingdom than at least to Ulster.

Kipling’s bombast seems even-tempered compared to the text of the covenant itself. “[R]elying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted”, covenant signatories pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy”. This was not empty rhetoric.

In 1912, the unionist militia that was to become the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed. Two years later, almost twenty-five thousand rifles and three million rounds of ammunition were smuggled into Ulster in what became known as the Larne gun-running. Any doubts about the Protestant people of Ulster’s capacity to suppress, first, the home rule ambitions of the Irish Parliamentary party and Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, and, later, Irish republicans were dispelled. Ireland would eventually gain independence, but the north would, of course, remain part of the United Kingdom.

The impact of the covenant was keenly felt in many parts of Scotland. It was drafted by Belfast merchant Thomas Sinclair, a Gladstonian who broke with the Grand Old Man after the Liberal leader adopted the policy of Irish home rule. Sinclair, who had a very developed sense of his Scottish identity, consciously echoes the Scottish Covenanters lexicon in his text. Indeed, the Ulster Covenant was often referred to as “the Solemn League and Covenant” in homage to the agreement of the same name signed between Scottish Covenanters and the leaders of the English Parliamentarians in 1643.

“It was this Presbyterian tradition that supplied the rebellious spirit of 1912,” says Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The campaign against home rule for Ireland had popular support in Scotland, particularly on the west coast, with thousands turning out to see Edward Carson in Glasgow. Many Scots were among the two million signatures to the British Covenant, a protest, mirrored on the Ulster version, which circulated in 1914. However, says Prof Walker, Scottish enthusiasm for the Unionist cause in Ulster was less pronounced than many Irish Protestants hoped. “Unionists [in Ulster] were disappointed by the less than full-blooded support of their co-religionists in Scotland”.

That Ulster Protestants would look to Scotland for validation is hardly surprisingly. As the periodic debates about sectarianism here attest, the legacy of Scots-Irish relations remains vexed. Less controversial is that many lowland Scots participated in the plantation of Ulster, which started around 1600. The remnants of this migration are still felt today in the names, religion and dialect of many in what is now Northern Ireland, particularly in the areas closest to Scotland.

Between 1840 and 1920, the flow of migrants was reversed. As the famine ravaged Ireland, increasing numbers escaped across the Irish Sea to Scotland. According to census results, in 1841, 126,321 people in Scotland (4.8 per cent of the population) were Irish-born. Within a decade this figure had risen to 207,367 (7.2 per cent). These new migrants settled across Scotland, but those coming from Ulster, both Catholic and Protestant, tended to congregate in Glasgow and smaller towns in the west of Scotland.

As Alasdair McKillop notes in a recent Scottish Review essay, Protestants accounted for between a quarter and a third of all Irish immigrants who arrived in Scotland in the 19th century.

The vast majority were from the north of Ireland; and many went on to join the Orange Order, which, although initially established here by Scots army regiments returning from Ulster was, until the 1920s, largely a society for emigre Ulster Protestants in Scotland.

The Orange Order remains an obvious connection for Protestants east and west of Ailsa Craig. During the 1920s, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Scots joined the order, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour. While its support remained strongest in areas of historic Irish-Protestant migration, many Scots with no connection with Ulster, or Ireland, enrolled in the organisation.

The order is not the force it once was in Scottish politics – indeed some, such as Professor Eric Kaufmann, would argue that the power of the putative “Orange Vote” has often been overstated but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8,000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city. A century on from the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the union faces its gravest existential threat yet – Scottish independence. Orange leaders, thankfully, have largely recognised that the SNP are not, and never will be, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the political situation in Scotland today is very different from that which existed in Ireland in 1912.

“There is no religious tension in Scotland, no armed uprising, no open rebellion. It’s not a case of taking up arms to defend the Union,” Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, said in an address to the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, County Antrim, on 12 July. The case for the Union, Wilson said, must be made “by persuasion, by campaigning, and through the ballot box”.

Northern Irish unionists have yet to made a compelling case for their inclusion at the top table at the independence salon. Earlier this week, Dr David Hume, director of services at the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, claimed Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland are “stakeholders” who should to be given a vote in the 2014 referendum. Dr Hume was speaking at a Glasgow event in to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the Ulster covenant.

Notwithstanding the practical problems pertaining to Dr Hume’s proposition — how do you define Ulster Scots? Would people of Scottish descent elsewhere in the world be allowed to vote? The reality is that Ulster Scots can participate in the debate, not by voting but by well-made, reasoned interjections, presumably, in support of the Union.

Many Northern Irish unionist spokespeople have failed to appreciate the subtleties of the debate on this side of the Irish Sea – as former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s fatuous suggestion that the SNP are “doing violence” to people’s identities illustrated.

What happens in Scotland still matters in Northern Ireland, as any football fan knows, but Scotland 2014 is not Ulster 1912. Until Northern Irish unionists grasp that difference their voice in the independence is bound to remain muted.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, 28 September. 

Scotland Rallies for Independence

How George Robertson must regret saying in 1995 that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson, then the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, was trying to appease sceptical unionists. Last weekend, 13 years after a devolved parliament was established at Holyrood, somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 people attended a ‘March and Rally for Scottish Independence’ in Edinburgh. Organisers said that it will be an annual event until the independence referendum in 2014.

Squabbling over numbers – whether of crowds, revenue or voters – has been a feature of a campaign that has so far managed to be both shrill and low-key. ‘Seriously, is this #indyrally a secret gathering? I have seen better turnouts at bowls tournaments,’ the Labour press officer James Mills tweeted. Writing in the Scotsman, the former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith said nationalists had scored ‘the mother of all own-goals’. Whether either of them attended the event is unclear.

The SNP and the Yes Scotland campaign have gone in for some raucous hyperbole, too, but Saturday was hardly a disaster. Indeed, in the mix of people and perspectives on show, the rally marked a refreshing departure from dreary tribalism. Among the sea of Saltires assembled on a bright, warm morning on the Meadows there were Welsh flags, Senyeras and a huge banner carrying the face of the Edinburgh-born Irish Republican hero James Connolly.

‘Scottish independence would be the best thing for Scotland, the best thing for women, the best thing for everyone,’ said Sarah Currier fromVillage Aunties, a socialist feminist collective (‘We are vigilantes. We are village aunties’). Venetian nationalists in full military regalia marched on the spot. In the background a mix of Orange Juice and Tartan rock (Yes Scotland’s theme song is Big Country’s ‘One Great Thing’) blared out of a campaign bus.

As the march got underway, activists filed behind their standards. There were SNP groups from Leith, Clydebank and elsewhere; Socialist Party members handed out leaflets and asked for signatures for a petition to have Tony Blair charged with war crimes; a small group of Scottish Labour supporters marched behind a ‘Labour for Independence’ banner. Alan Grogan, a bookmaker from Angus, started the group ‘because I was told every time I mentioned it that a vote for independence was a vote for the SNP.’

‘People have realised that Scottish Labour is essentially a puppet of Westminster,’ the writer Alan Bissett told me as we walked past Greyfriars Kirkyard and along George IV Bridge. In January, Bissett released a caustic monologue called ‘Vote Britain’: ‘Vote for being told you’re the only country in the world that could not possibly survive and that without us you’d fall to pieces like children abandoned in the wild, caked in faeces.’

Our destination was the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. With Edinburgh Castle in the background, Alex Salmond led the crowd in a call-and-response (‘What do we want?’ ‘Independence!’ ‘How we gonnae vote?’ ‘Yes!’); the Scottish Socialist leader Colin Fox talked hopefully of ‘the beginning of a Scottish spring’; the independent MSP Margo MacDonald called for a popular front in favour of independence, echoing the Scotland United campaign that followed the 1992 Conservative general election victory, but warned that ‘after the independence vote has been won, then party politics come back into play.’

Whether independence can be achieved without a more fully articulated policy platform remains to be seen. Many in Scotland – I’m one of them – would like to see the tabula rasa of an independent Scotland shaded in, however lightly, before committing ourselves. The SNP has been sending out mixed signals; talking about keeping the queen and the pound on the one hand, while on the other saying that it will be up to ‘the people of Scotland’ to decide policy after independence. As the ‘No to Nato’ and ‘Believe in a Nuclear Free Scotland’ placards at Saturday’s march attested, for many people independence isn’t only about self-determination, but about what we do with it.

The Unionist cause meanwhile is far less coherent than its defenders claim. Better Together, the No campaign, is an unhappy marriage of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem supporters and unionist-minded civil society that is unlikely to rub along entirely harmoniously (especially while rogue elements such as the Orange Order in Northern Ireland put forward uninvited proposals on how the referendum should be conducted).

Although polls suggest the appetite for independence is flagging – only 32 per cent of Scots are in favour, according to the recent British Social Attitudes Survey – the ballot is still more than two years away. As the late Stephen Maxwell notes in Arguing for Independence, more than £40 billion is due to be stripped from the Scottish budget by 2025. Swingeing cuts, an unpopular Tory-led coalition and a faltering recovery north of the border could yet provide the impetus for the break-up of Britain. ‘This was always going to be a bad year for us, with the Olympics and the Jubilee,’ a veteran independence supporter said. ‘But Cameron will see that it gets a whole lot better from now on.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog

Among the Orangemen

Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, addressed the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, on 12 July. After describing Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the queen as ‘a humiliating surrender’ for Sinn Fein, Wilson turned his anger on a ‘more cuddly and user-friendly’ nationalist: Alex Salmond. ‘The ultimate aim of Mr Salmond is precisely the same as Mr McGuinness – the destruction and break up of the United Kingdom,’ he said.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland is not the political force it once was – in the 1920s it had hundreds of thousands of members, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour – but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city.

The order was traditionally aligned with the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, but that’s changed with the electoral demise of the Tories north of the border. Many West of Scotland Orangemen are now solid Labour supporters. According to the current Grand Master, Henry Dunbar, the Order even encouraged members to vote SNP in the 2011 Holyrood elections in protest over a Glasgow City Council policy to reduce parades. The SNP won a number of Labour strongholds in Glasgow in its landslide victory, though it’s not clear what, if anything, the ‘Orange vote’ contributed to that.

The Order’s putative flirtation with the nationalists didn’t last long. Before May’s local elections, the Labour group leader in Glasgow, Gordon Matheson, appeared at an Orange Lodge hustings, apparently telling members that the council’s parading policy was ‘flawed’. TheOrange Torch praised Matheson for his attacks on the SNP – ‘the kind of bullish talk we need to hear more of from unionist politicians’ – and claimed that Labour held control of the council thanks to the help of ‘thousands of Orangemen and their families’.

The possibility of Scottish independence has given the order ‘a new imperative’, Wilson said when I interviewed him recently. He has been appointed head of an internal strategy group to co-ordinate the Orange Lodge of Scotland’s response to the referendum. At present, the Order is not involved in Better Together, the official ‘No’ campaign supported by Scottish Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

In 2007, the Order sent out a press release calling for undefined ‘direct action’ against the ‘threat’ of independence. It was quickly retracted and the member responsible disciplined. ‘This is not Northern Ireland in 1912, we are not Edward Carson,’ Wilson said. ‘The Lodge has to be careful not to queer the pitch – we do have our fans but a lot of people don’t like us. There is nothing to be gained from having a negative impact on the campaign.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

A New Dalriada?

My thoughts on what Scottish Independence campaign – and independence itself – might mean for Northern Ireland, from Scotsman January 11.

‘Do you want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?’ Doubtless it’s the kind of phrasing David Cameron had in mind when he demanded a ‘fair, clear and decisive question’ on Scottish independence earlier this week. But the Tory leader would do well to reflect on the last time Westminster ignored nationalist opposition to put such a formulation to the vote in a referendum on the constitutional future of a member of the United Kingdom – in Northern Ireland, in 1973.

The so-called ‘Border Poll’, conducted across Northern Ireland on March 8, 1973, certainly asked a clear question: should the North stay in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. And it produced a decisive result. On a respectable looking 58% turnout, a whopping 98.92% voted to retain the status quo.

But on Cameron’s fairness criteria, the Border Poll was altogether less clear and decisive. That January, as sectarian violence raged across Northern Ireland, the eminently sensible SDLP leader Gerry Fitt called on his (predominantly moderate) supporters ‘to ignore completely the referendum and reject this extremely irresponsible decision by the British Government’. The Catholic/nationalist population boycotted the vote en masse, while the Irish Republican Army vowed to disrupt the ballot. In the end, one soldier was killed in the days leading up to the referendum and a paltry 6,463 supported a united Ireland.

Scotland today is not, thankfully, Northern Ireland four decades ago, but the perils of London interference in a plebiscite on sovereignty should not be lost on Westminster panjandrums. Scottish Nationalists are a long way from issuing a boycott for a referendum many have spent a lifetime campaigning for, but continued dictating of terms by a Conservative prime minister with scant mandate north of the border could change that.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been precious little consideration of what, if any, affect all this talk of independence in Scotland might have across the Irish Sea. Given its strong cultural and historical ties with Ireland, and particularly Ulster and indeed unionism, any move by Scotland away from the United Kingdom could provoke something of an existentialist crisis among Northern Irish unionists, and even nationalists.

Northern Ireland’s constitutional future is, in many respects, still unsettled. The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 is essentially a constitutional holding position, enshrining the aspirations of nationalists and unionists while binding both to the wishes of the majority. With the collapse of the Irish Celtic Tiger and Northern Ireland’s own economic travails, the future of the Irish wing of the union appears secure – but it is built on relatively soft sands.

The results of last year’s census aren’t expected until the summer, but other indicators suggest that the Catholic population in Northern Ireland is growing more quickly than the Protestant. Conventional wisdom – which, as JK Galbraith recognised, hides a multitude of sins and uncomfortable facts – posits that such a rise will lead to increased support for nationalism and, eventually, Irish reunification.

According to the 2001 census, just over 53% of the Northern Ireland populace hails from a Protestant background, 44% from a Catholic background, with the remainder of a non-religious background, or other Christian and non-Christian faiths. However, figures obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister suggest that these demographics might be shifting. In 2009/10, Queen’s University in Belfast had 8,710 Northern Ireland resident students from a Catholic background compared with 6,740 from a Protestant faith. The contrast was even more extreme in the University of Ulster, which had 11,070 Catholics and 7,020 Protestants spread across its four campuses.

As reported in the Irish Times recently, this trend is equally pronounced in second-level education, where factors such as leaving Northern Ireland to attend university in Britain do not come into play. Data released by Northern Ireland’s Department of Education, showed that, in 2010/11, there were 120,415 Protestants and 163,693 Catholics in the North’s schools.

Birth rates are a hoary subject in Northern Ireland. When Republicans dropped their boycott of the census at the end of the Troubles, the question of whether nationalists might breed their way to a united Ireland became a hot topic, replete with tired stereotypes about the size of Catholic families. The run-up to the 2001 census featured a wealth of over-heated headlines: ‘Catholic Boom: Census shows Protestants will be minority in 10 years’; ‘Nationalists ‘will become majority’’; ‘Unionists filled with foreboding at loss of influence.’

Then, when the eventual figures revealed a smaller than envisaged Catholic population, it became a matter of ‘Census blow to republican hopes’ and ‘United Ireland disappointed’. In reality the sectarian headcount has been a less useful heuristic for voting intentions than many assume: significant numbers of Protestants and, more commonly, Catholics have voted for nationalist and unionist parties respectively. The latest findings from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, released last summer, show the latter tendency strengthening. 52% of Catholics polled were in favour of remaining in the UK. Against this only 4% of Protestants supported union with the Republic of Ireland. In total, a large majority, 73%, backed the union with Britain.

Indeed in June, First Minister Peter Robinson – who, back in 1986, was so vehemently opposed to power-sharing with Catholics that he led a group of 500 loyalists over the border to invade the village of Clontibret in the Irish Republic in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement – set out a vision for transforming those erstwhile naysayers the Democratic Unionist Party into a cross-community force. ‘My task is to make voting DUP as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as anyone else,’ Robinson wrote, noting that ‘support for a united Ireland has dropped to an all-time low of some 16%.’

Looked at from Castle Buildings at Stormont the union seems in rude health. Buttressed slightly from the economic ill-winds blowing a gale across the border and reliant on Exchequer support to the tune of some £6bn per annum, Northern Ireland – and many Northern Irish Catholics – have a significant investment in the British state. Meanwhile in the leafy suburbs, middle-class mixing is slowly breaking down many of the old sectarian barriers, disrupting the Orange-Green dichotomy that has dominated mindsets for generations.

It would take a seismic event to alter Northern Ireland’s constitutional status…say, Scottish independence. The independence debate has already put the prospect of a break-up of the UK on the table in a way that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. If Scots were to go it alone, Northern Ireland would find itself culturally and geographically isolated inside a truncated union with a decidedly uncertain future.

Scotland and Ireland will always be close. At its shortest, the distance between the Mull of Kintyre and the north Antrim coast is only 20km. A pan-Celtic union encompassing independent Scotland and both sides of the Irish border has some form: the ancient Gaelic overkingdom of Dalriada stretched all the way from Skye to Antrim during the 6th and 7th centuries, reaching its apogee at the great monastic settlement of Iona.

A new Dalriada is a highly improbable, even fantastical, prospect but in the event of Scottish independence the status quo in Northern Ireland is unlikely to suffice, for both endogenous and exogenous reasons. It’s hard to imagine an increasingly confident Catholic population retaining long-term support for a union reduced to just England and Wales (and equally difficult to conceive of any huge desire on London’s part to retain control in Belfast).

The result of the 1973 Northern Ireland referendum was a foregone conclusion. Now the clamour for Scottish independence could have unintended consequences for political life on both sides of the Irish Sea. One thing is certain: next time the future of the union is put to a vote, the outcome won’t be anywhere near as clear cut as it was almost 40 years ago.