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.

 

Ulster is still problematic

After the collapse of the Haass talks, power sharing in Northern Ireland is bound to get even more dysfunctional, writes Peter Geoghegan

Have you heard the one about the government minister who, at Christmas, took his cabinet colleague to court in a row over public spending? This might sound like the set-up to a festive gag for political anoraks, but it is exactly what transpired at the High Court in Belfast last week.

Northern Ireland finance minister Simon Hamilton, a Democratic Unionist, initiated the legal action against Sinn Fein agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill. Mr Hamilton won.

From now on, Ms O’Neill will have to seek approval from the rest of the Stormont cabinet over how she distributes European funding.

This, increasingly, is how politics works in Northern Ireland. So it probably should not come as too great a surprise that cross-party peace talks – even those with the imprimatur of the United States – failed to reach a compromise on New Year’s Eve.

But the inability of the five Stormont executive parties to do a deal under the watchful eyes of former US peace envoy Richard Haass was still a shock. In the days – even the hours – leading up to Tuesday’s deadline, Northern Irish political leaders had made positive noises to the media. Dr Haass himself had said he was confident of reaching “meaningful agreement” when he returned to Belfast before Christmas.Haass

Northern Ireland, of course, had been here before, too. From Good Friday, in 1998, through to St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough four years ago, every significant agreement in the peace process had been forged in the smithy of late-night brinkmanship. Every time collapse had seemed imminent but, at each juncture, common ground was, eventually, found.

Like most observers, I assumed that another dose of “constructive ambiguity” – a fudge – would reconcile unionists and nationalists on the three big issues of the day: flags, parades and the past. But not this time.

Instead, Dr Haass left Belfast’s Stormont Hotel a failure. Sinn Féin had said they were prepared to recommend the proposals to their executive, but unionists would not sign up to Haass’ seventh and final draft late on Monday night.

Despite Haass’ protestations that he has created a platform upon which compromise can be built, the reality is that little progress his been made.

“Nothing is resolved. There is ambiguity about the process. There is ambiguity about the outcome. We are no closer to understanding the needs of victims, no closer to addressing the past, no closer to an agreement on flags,” a source inside the Haass talks told The Scotsman.

So where does the fault in this failure to reach an agreement lie? In the zero-sum game of Northern Irish politics, the temptation is often to accord blame equally: “a plague on both your houses.” Certainly, recriminations have come quickly on both sides of the sectarian divide: on Tuesday night, just hours after the talks broke up, Ulster Unionist Party negotiator Jeff Dudgeon blamed the cross-community Alliance for the process failing, a far-fetched accusation that gained little traction.

When searching for culprits to finger, Mr Dudgeon would do better to look closer to home. As the final version of the Haass proposals, published on the devolved Stormont government’s website, makes clear, it was unionists who stood firmly in the way of a deal. On a raft of issues, most notably on parading and the past, nationalists, and particularly Sinn Fein, made a number of concessions.

But unionist leaders, more worried about being outflanked from the right – by flag protesters such as Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazier and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice’s Jim Allister – than doing a deal with Irish nationalism, remained intransigent. After Haass left, Democratic Unionist party first minister Peter Robinson said: “I detect from each of the parties a willingness to work on to complete the task.” A wonder, then, why Mr Robinson did not decide to stick around for the crucial final plenary session of the talks on Monday night.

Ulster unionism has previous when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

You would never know it to listen to Peter Robinson or Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, but Northern Ireland’s place in the union has never been more secure. The constitutional question is essentially settled in Northern Ireland – far more settled, at least, than it is here in Scotland.

The Good Friday Agreement enshrined the principle that only the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland can change its constitutional status. Opinion polls put support for a united Ireland at just one-fifth.

But instead of celebrating their triumph, unionist leaders are embroiled in a myopic culture war that is driving a further wedge between communities in Northern Ireland, in the process making compromise almost impossible.

When Belfast City councilors voted last winter to fly the Union flag from Belfast city hall on designated days, rather than all year round, unionists had an opportunity to claim a history victory. Irish republicans – who just a decade-and-a-half earlier had fought an armed campaign against the British state – were now voting to fly the red, white and blue on the Queen’s birthday!

How did unionism respond? By decrying a democratic decision as an assault on Protestant culture, effectively sanctioning flag-waving loyalist protesters that almost brought Belfast to a standstill.

Meanwhile, a protest camp has been in place since July on north Belfast’s Twaddell Avenue, after an Orange Order parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area.

Unionists should not take all the blame for the Haass disaster.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers was, as one senior figure put it to me, a “bystander” throughout the talks. Her comments to BBC Radio 4 in the aftermath showed just how out of her depth the Conservative member for Chipping Barnet is in Belfast. “The reality is if you look at issues of identity, some people would argue that it’s been a problem for the last 800 years. In many ways, it’s not surprising that it can’t be fixed in three months.”

Ms Villiers’ party leader, David Cameron, has shown neither aptitude nor inclination for Northern Ireland since he assumed office.

Westminster should have been at the Haass table. These were issues it had a real say in: parading is not devolved, flags are about sovereignty, and the British state was hardly a silent partner in the murky world of “the past”. But instead the British government watched Haass from the sidelines.

Reports of the Good Friday Agreement’s demise are greatly exaggerated. But the default setting at Stormont is conflict, not compromise. “We are in a power-sharing government but we are not sharing power. We are firmly embedded in our own fiefdoms without any sense of responsible, just government,” says John McCallister, deputy leader of the new liberal unionist party NI21 and a former member of the Ulster Unionist Party.

With European and local elections this summer, a Westminster vote next year and devolved elections due in 2016, the political temperature in Northern Ireland is only getting to get hotter. Which is good news for Belfast High Court lawyers, but not for the many people in Northern Ireland who are fed up with “extraordinary” politics.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman, on January 6, 2013.