In Scotland, ‘no’ means ‘yes’

GLASGOW — At 6:30 a.m. on September 19 last year, Natalie McGarry sat alone on the pavement outside the glass-fronted Emirates Arena in this city’s East End. Inside, the counting of votes in Scotland’s independence referendum had ended a couple of hours earlier — Yes had won Glasgow but lost overall, by just over 10 points. Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom.

“I was the last person left in a very sad and lonely Emirates,” recalls McGarry, who spent months campaigning with Yes Scotland in the run-up to last year’s ballot. “I was devastated.”

McGarry’s despondency did not last long, however.

A few days after the vote, the then-33-year-old policy advisor was due to speak in Brussels, at a meeting of stateless nations from around the world. As she prepared her speech, the big story in Scotland moved from the 55/45 referendum result to the tens of thousands joining the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

“I had prepared to talk about this heartbreaking loss but instead I was talking about this huge new engagement in politics,” says McGarry.

* * *

A year on from the independence referendum, Scotland and its politics has “changed, changed utterly” — as former SNP leader Alex Salmond, paraphrasing W.B. Yeats, remarked in his resignation speech last year.

On September 18, 2014, the SNP’s rolls numbered just more than 25,000. Today the nationalists have more than 110,000 members — and, in May, increased their representation at Westminster from just six seats to 56, winning all but three Scottish constituencies.

“The political landscape across Scotland has changed completely,” says McGarry, who is now the SNP MP for Glasgow East, overturning a Labour majority of more than 10,000 to win with a swing of more than 32 percent on a greatly increased turnout, a post-referendum trend repeated across Scotland.

In May’s general election, the SNP managed to attract the support of the vast majority of the 1.6 million Yes votes, including many in traditional working class areas disillusioned at the inability of Labour governments to solve the problems that plague much of post-industrial Scotland. Polls put the nationalists on course to win an unprecedented third consecutive term in the devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh next year.

“It is now self-evident to most Scots that decision-making should happen — on most issues — in Holyrood not in Westminster,” says Scottish political commentator Iain Macwhirter.

Although Scots voted No, the referendum hastened the unraveling of the Act of Union that joined Scotland and England in 1707, says Macwhirther.

“The independence referendum of 2014 was the most transformative political moment in Scotland in 300 years. It marked the beginning of the end of the Union of 1707, the consolidation of a distinct Scottish political culture, the end of Labour’s political dominance of Scotland.”

* * *

Alex Salmond previously declared last year’s vote a “once in a generation” opportunity. But, in the febrile arena of Scottish politics, a generation could prove as short as a few years.

Calls for another referendum are growing. Thousands of Scottish nationalists are due to rally in Glasgow this weekend.

Amid polls showing support for independence gaining strength, Scottish First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon has come under pressure to include a commitment to a second referendum on the party’s manifesto for next year’s devolved elections.

A loose pledge on another vote is likely, but having built its success on a “gradualist” strategy, the SNP is unlikely to rush a second referendum. Sturgeon has said that a “material change” in Scotland’s constitutional position would trigger a ballot — if the U.K. votes to leave the European Union and Scots chose to remain, for example, or even the election of another Conservative government in 2020 with no mandate north of the border.

While British Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that he would not countenance another referendum, last year’s vote “will be the focal point of Scottish politics for the future and will continue to be until the next referendum,” says David Torrance, the biographer of both Salmond and Sturgeon.

Nationalists are highly unlikely to risk a second referendum until polls show a consistent support of at least 60 percent for leaving the U.K., but independence “is now the inescapable prism of politics” in Scotland says Torrance.

“Once things are framed in those terms [independence or the union], it is very hard to shift the focus back onto “normal” politics. That is reflected in the fact that the Scottish government doesn’t have that fantastic a record in areas like health and education but is wildly popular.

* * *

In 1995, then Labour Shadow Secretary for Scotland George Robertson predicted that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.” Two years later, Scots voted overwhelmingly for a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh — but far from ending demands for independence, the clamor to leave the United Kingdom has grown stronger in the almost two decades since.

Westminster has struggled to accommodate growing demands for Scottish self-determination. The cross-party pro-U.K. campaign during the independence referendum — so negative that it was nicknamed “Project Fear” — began with a commanding 40-point lead and ended up relying on last minute promises of fresh powers for the Scottish Parliament to secure victory.

The Smith Commission, established in the wake of last September’s vote, recommended more devolution, but for many nationalists the new levers proposed do not go far enough. Meanwhile, Conservative plans to introduce specific voting rights for English MPs in Westminster have drawn the SNP’s ire.

Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at Glasgow University and a Conservative candidate in next year’s Scottish elections, says that “the union isn’t going away anytime soon” but unionists need to make more of the benefits of the three centuries-old relationship between Scotland and England.

“People need to know what the union does for them. The union feels very abstract; it feels very distant from the life of, say, a working class man in Glasgow.”

Tomkins’ solution is two-fold: to nurture common cultural bounds across the border through proposals such as twinning pupils in English and Scottish schools; and to build an “architecture of shared rule” that would give Scots greater representation in the institutions of Whitehall and the British state.

“The ingredients that held the union in the 20th century are not going to be the ones that held the union together in the 21st century,” says Tomkins. “But some kind of replacement glue is going to be needed.”

* * *

Despite the SNP surge, victory for nationalists in a second referendum is not a given. The economic and political uncertainties that contributed so much to the Yes side’s defeat — particularly over what currency an independent Scotland would use — are no closer to conclusive answers.

Political developments elsewhere in Britain might also change the dynamic in Scotland. The SNP’s social democratic rhetoric has played well at the ballot box, but with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Scottish nationalists could face a threat from the left.

“Corbyn is a huge black swan that has sailed into the middle of the constitutional debate. Suddenly, the SNP cannot claim to be the sole inheritor of social democratic politics in Scotland,” says Macwhirter.

“The nationalists have done very well by adopting all the policies — like free tuition fees, council housing, prescription charges — that Labour abandoned under Blair. But now Corbyn is coming along and reappropriating them, which is a fascinating development.”

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

Spain’s Catalans set to vote on independence

Catalans expected to turn out in droves on Sunday for what is now a ‘symbolic’ independence referendum.


Support for independence has risen dramatically in what is seen as an attempt to curb Catalan power [Reuters]

Barcelona, Spain Sleep has been hard to come by in Barcelona this week – but not on account of the city’s fabled nightlife.

Instead, the narrow streets and old squares of Barcelona have reverberated to a crepuscular cacophony of banging pots and pans. These noisy protests – called cacerolazo, literally “casserole” – started recently after Spain’s constitutional court suspended a proposed non-binding poll on Catalan independence.

A vote, however, will go ahead as planned on Sunday, Catalan President Artur Mas has said. In Barcelona, cacerolazo protesters have vowed to keep beating their kitchenware until it does.

“All peoples have the right to decide their future,” Mas told reporters on Wednesday. The vote was initially intended as a legally binding referendum on independence from Spain, but was downgraded to a symbolic “consultation” after an intervention from the country’s constitutional court.

Now, it has been watered down further. Sunday’s poll will be “a participatory process” with no formal standing, run entirely by volunteers instead of the Catalan government.

Future of Catalonia

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called any attempt to hold a vote on leaving Spain “anti-democratic”, saying Spain’s constitution prevents any region from unilaterally taking decisions that affect all Spaniards.

Madrid and Barcelona have been at loggerheads since July 2010, when a new statute on Catalan autonomy was struck down by Spain’s constitutional court.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in the wake of what was widely seen as an attempt to curb the power of Catalan’s regional parliament. Just under half of Catalans are in favour of leaving Spain, according to opinion polls last month. More than one-fifth of respondents said they were recent converts to the nationalist cause.

Rocio Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, a socialist parliamentarian at the Catalan assembly, is opposed to independence but says a referendum is needed to settle the future of Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that stretches for 400km from the French border to neighbouring Valencia.

The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned.

– Rafael Lopez, Catalan Popular Party MP

Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, who favours a federal arrangement for Catalonia, blames the Spanish prime minister for unwittingly building Catalan support for leaving Spain.

“Rajoy has never approached this in a political way, he is just saying ‘no, no, no’ to everything,” she told Al Jazeera. “If you say ‘no’ to everything, people will say the only solution is independence.”

But Rafael Lopez, a Catalan member of parliament from Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party, said any referendum on independence would be illegal.

“The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned,” Lopez said.

Sunday’s poll will have “no legal validity nor democratic guarantee”, Lopez added.

Nevertheless, Catalan nationalists have been busy preparing for the vote. Television adverts and mailshots have carried election information. Pro-independence memes have ignited on social media.

Widespread frustration

An estimated 40,000 people have volunteered to staff polling centres across Catalonia. Expatriates in around 40 cities worldwide – including London, Paris, Mexico City, and Montreal – will be able to vote at offices of international Catalan delegations.

The ballot will have the same two-part question that was planned for the suspended referendum. The first is whether voters want Catalonia to be a state. The second is whether they want it to be an independent state. As in the recent independence referendum in Scotland, 16 and 17-year olds will be able to participate, too.

The clamour for Catalan independence has grown amid Spain’s financial crisis and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980. Recent attempts by Madrid to interfere with Catalan education have further stoked passions.

Catalonia is the country’s most prosperous and most economically productive region and accounts for about a quarter of Spain’s taxes – far more than its share of Spain’s population.

Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – runs at between 7 and 10 percent of the region’s GDP. Such disparities have deepened resentment.

‘V’ for vote

On September 11 this year, Catalonia’s national holiday, hundreds of thousands of independence supporters converged on Barcelona, forming a huge “V” – for vote – in Catalan red and yellow. Now nationalists are hoping a large demonstration of strength on Sunday will show both Madrid and the world that their demands are not going away.

“The goal is to keep the pressure on Madrid and to demonstrate to the world that the process is alive and it’s not just an invention of Artur Mas,” said Marc Vidal, foreign editor of pro-independence Catalan newspaper ARA.

I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote.

– Liz Castro, supporter of Catalan independence

The vast majority are expected to vote “yes”, but turnout will be crucial. Two million votes, about 30 percent of the electorate, would be a “big result” for the nationalists, said Vidal.

Liz Castro, a supporter of Catalan independence in Barcelona, said the attitude of the Spanish government will only strengthen nationalists’ resolve to turnout on Sunday.

“I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote,” Castro said.

Supporters of the union with Spain argued independence would be disastrous for Catalonia – and for Europe.

“If regions like Catalonia, the Flemish region, Lombardy, Veneto, some German states or Corsica decide to secede, Europe would be cut into pieces, and that would go against its philosophy,” said Josep Ramon Bosch, president of pro-union association Societat Civil Catalana.

While there is little doubt about the outcome of Sunday’s consultation, a long-term solution to the Catalan question is much less clear cut. Spain’s national politics has been turned on its head following a poll this week that put Podemos, a youthful leftist-only party formed in January, ahead of both Rajoy’s Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party nationally.

Some Catalan commentators expect Artur Mas to call early elections to the Catalan parliament, in an effort to secure a resounding majority in favour of independence and increase pressure on Madrid. But Mas himself has been weakened by a tax-evasion scandal involving the founder of his ruling Convergence and Union party. A recent poll showed the more fervently pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia well ahead among Catalan voters.

For Catalan nationalists, however, the big question is how Madrid will react to the latest salvo in the campaign for a referendum on independence.

“There is a general feeling that the Spanish government doesn’t know what is going on here,” said independence activist Castro. “I don’t think they really realise what people are ready to do here.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

‘Is It Worse to Be Run from Edinburgh or London?’

In his book, the Making of the Crofting Community, the Scottish historian James Hunter quotes a small farmer in the Highlands as saying they “hate us in London but ignore us in Edinburgh.” Standing on the windswept pier at Stornoway, the main town on the isle of Lewis, both metropoles feel like a world away. The twice-daily ferry takes almost three hours just to reach the mainland. From there, it is another 200 miles to the Scottish capital.

There are few places in the United Kingdom further from the corridors of power than the Western Isles, the scenic archipelago of fifteen inhabited ribbons off Scotland’s west coast. Many of the islanders speak Scots Gaelic and rely on farming, fishing and tourism for their income. So what does the prospect of Scottish independence – or staying in the union – mean so far away from Westminster and Holyrood?

The Western Isles is a Scottish National Party stronghold. Both the sitting MP and the member of the Scottish Parliament are nationalists. But when it comes to the referendum Lewis, where the majority of the islands’ population of around 30,000 live, seems as split as the rest of Scotland. “The island is 50/50,” says one local journalist. “People seem pretty settled in their minds. I don’t think the campaigns have made much impact.”

One of the reasons the yes and no sides have struggled to make inroads on Lewis is that the major national concerns are not always the most significant for this island community. Ask someone walking the narrow streets of Stornoway what the big issues are for them and they will most likely mention fuel poverty, the removal of tax relief on ferry freight and local control of revenue levied on using the seabed.

For some there is wariness about whether independence would actually mean more local power for places such as Lewis. The SNP administration at the devolved parliament in Holyrood has displayed a fondness for centralization, bringing policing, emergency services and European funding under central government control. A council tax freeze mandated from Holyrood has left officials in the pebbledashed council offices, built in the 1970s to house a newly created Western Isles local authority, with less control over local affairs than they used to have.

“One of the worries is that it is worse to be run from Edinburgh than London,” says Fred Silver, former editor of the Stornoway Gazette when we met for a balti in Lewis’s only curry house. An Englishman who has spent more than two decades in the Western Isles, Silver sports a blue “Yes” badge but concedes that Edinburgh has not always done right by the islands.

“You can actually demonstrate that the best period for the island was under the Tory government in the 1980s,” he says, citing the creation of a Gaelic television fund, the spread of Gaelic medium education and the establishment of a local enterprise company that has since been disbanded.

Brian Wilson, a former Labour minister in Westminster in Tony Blair’s first administration, has long been one of the strongest critics of the SNP. “Nationalism believes in taking decision making to the centre. Their localism is Scotland,” he says. “There is a very strong philosophy in Scotland just now of centralizing in order to bring everything under ministerial control.”

“There are large areas of public policy that need completely different perspectives in island communities or in very peripheral communities and to be honest there is not a lot of interest in any of that. They will tick the boxes but there is no real understanding of how difficult things are or what is needed,” says Wilson, who was a Labour MP in Ayrshire.

But Alastair Allan, local SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, says that only a “yes” vote would guarantee more powers for island communities. “The decision about what Scotland’s budget is is not ours to make. We pay our taxes to the UK government and they decide what Scotland gets to spend.”

The islands have certainly benefited from the creation of a separate Scottish Parliament, particularly when it comes to changing Scotland’s almost feudal system of land ownership. Around 2500 people own about three-quarters of all private land in Scotland. Take a drive almost anywhere beyond the housing schemes of the Central Belt and you will soon run into vast private estates. The Duke of Buccleuch alone owns some quarter of a million acres.

In 2003, the Labour government in Holyrood introduced the Land Reform Act, which allows local communities to buy the land they live on. While the act has had little impact on the baronial estates on the mainland, it has transformed many island communities. Since its introduction, around 70 per cent of the Western Isles has come under direct community ownership. On islands like Eigg, the local community has been able to raise money to buy the entire island.

For some the community buy-outs on islands like Harris and South Uist are evidence of why Scotland needs independence to fulfil its potential. David Cameron (not the British prime minister – the chair of Community Land Scotland) disagrees. “We have community empowerment now and that has got cross-community support. Whatever happens next week won’t make a whit of difference to us,” he says at the end of a day-long conference on land reform held in the function room of a Stornoway hotel. Among the delegates are representatives from communities across the Western Isles that are at various stages in purchasing the land they live on.

For many on the Scottish islands, the referendum on Thursday is not so much about currency or European Union membership but what the communities themselves will gain either from staying with the UK or being part of an independent Scotland. In 2013, the Western Isles teamed up with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, as part of the “Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign” aimed at securing a better deal for island communities whatever way the vote goes.

In June, the Scottish government in Edinburgh offered island communities control of all income that comes from leasing the seabed for wind farms, piers and boats moorings – money that currently goes to the UK’s Crown Estate – and the devolution of planning to local partnerships. The London government, so far, has promised little.

“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line”. On such modest proposals, perhaps, are islands (and nations) won and lost.

This piece originally appeared on Vice. 

Showdown in Scotland

GLASGOW, Scotland — All of a sudden, Scotland has gotten very interesting. That Scots would reject independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18 has been conventional wisdom from Washington to Westminster for practically every day of a two-year-long campaign on the matter. But not anymore.

On the evening of Sept. 1, the Scottish Twittersphere, febrile at the best of times, went into meltdown. A fresh poll had just been released showing the “No” camp just six points ahead of the “Yes” side. The same pollsters had put the No camp’s lead at 14 points in mid-August, and a whopping 22 points earlier the same month, excluding undecided voters. Yet the Sept. 1 poll was no outlier, as Peter Kellner, the doyen of British polling,explains. As if on cue, a Sept. 6 poll now has the Yes camp holding a 51-49 percent lead.

The latest polls give a scientific sheen to what anyone who has spent time in Scotland in recent weeks has noticed: Support for independence is building. Looking out the window of my apartment in Glasgow, I can count half a dozen blue Yes stickers and a Scottish Saltire flag (a nationalist symbol) with the same motto across the street. Most have appeared within the last month. Across Scotland, particularly in poorer urban areas, the political landscape is shifting in the nationalists’ favor. Rumors are rife that Rupert Murdoch’s widely circulated tabloid, theSun, will declare its support for independence in the coming week.

To be sure, a Yes outcome is still an outside bet with the bookmakers. But the odds are shortening — and fast.

***

What makes this surge all the more remarkable is that the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was widely seen as having lost a much-vaunted first debate with Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, on Aug. 5. Salmond was hotly tipped — one of his own MPs predicted a “slaughter” — but in front of a TV audience of almost 2 million (in a country of just over 5 million), Salmond struggled to answer questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use and how it would transition from the United Kingdom to separate statehood.

Despite Salmond’s televised travails, however, opinion polls rose slightly in favor of the nationalists after the debate. Then, in late August, he SNP leader wiped the floor with a lackluster Darling in the second and final live clash. Unsurprisingly, pro-United Kingdom spin doctors in the pressroom looked visibly worried.

Unionist solicitudes may have come too late. The “Better Together” campaign, as the No side is called, has maintained a relentlessly negative tone, which has earned it the nickname “Project Fear.” Just days before the latest opinion poll, a Better Together video featuring a housewifeunable to think about independence amid the clatter of family life was roundly criticized for being sexist and condescending — which is particularly damaging, as the female vote could prove decisive in just under two weeks’ time. The video went viral; even BuzzFeed picked upon the “Patronising BT Lady.”

Moreover, a parade of (mainly London-based) celebrities calling on Scotland to stay in the union was more cringe-inducing than voter-swaying. Warnings against independence from international leaders — whether Barack Obama or Tony Abbott — have also had little effect on the Scottish electorate.

Opinion polls consistently suggest that most Scots favor enhanced devolution (that is, more powers for the Scottish Parliament) over full independence, but the three main parties — Conservative, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats — that comprise Better Together have failed to present a common program for greater devolved powers after a No vote. Instead, the parties’ marriage of convenience has become increasingly strained as the referendum campaign has dragged on: Traditionally the dominant force in Scottish politics, Labour has been forced to share platforms with their gravest political foes, the Conservatives. David Cameron’s Tories are pariahs in Scotland, holding just one of 59 seats representing Scotland in the UK’s parliament and blamed for the savage de-industrialization of the Margaret Thatcher years that still scars the country today. The Liberal Democrats, once a significant presence north of Hadrian’s Wall, were routed in the 2011 elections to the devolved Scottish parliament — punishment for their decision to go into a coalition with Conservatives in London.

Meanwhile, “Yes Scotland,” the official independence campaign, has not exactly set the pulses racing. Its messaging has been vague and reports of internal splits have been rife. But pro-independence forces have something their unionist opponents largely lack: a dedicated, highly motivated grassroots political movement the likes of which Scotland (and possibly even Britain) has not seen in generations. In places like Easterhouse, a sprawling housing estate (or project) on the outskirts of Glasgow, the independence message is being driven not by the SNP, but by new groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign, a left-wing organization formed in 2012 that has proved effective at mobilizing disenfranchised voters.

Canvas returns now suggest that most Scots in working-class communities intend to vote Yes.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking. (Glasgow, for example, hassome of the worst mortality rates in the whole of Europe. In the Calton district, infamously, male life expectancy is just 59 years.) That said, the nationalist clarion call to abandon a “broken Britain” does not just play in housing estates: Polls suggest that younger voters are coming over to Yes in ever-increasing numbers. Thousands of grassroots activists have been mobilized, many for the first time.How is the movement gathering activists and achieving these gains? The SNP has long aped the 2008 Obama campaign, asking whether Scotland wants hope or fear. In reality, the nationalists have used a liberal amount of both, seasoning the optimistic vision of an affluent, nuclear-free, Nordic-lite independent Scotland with a salutary dose of doom-laden rhetoric about never-ending Tory rule and the erosion of the devolved parliament’s powers. But the key difference between this approach and that of Better Together is that the nationalists waited until the last month of the campaign to go negative — a tactic that seems to be working, judging by opinion polls.

Additionally, while unionists have the weight of the status quo behind them — and the advantage of incumbency — the nationalists have attempted to make this a referendum about not just Scottish independence, but also the Westminster political system. In calling for “Independence in Europe,” the Yes campaign is expressing a populist opprobrium of establishment politics that resonates with many voters.

***

In late August, I spent an afternoon in Gretna, in southern Scotland. For centuries, this border town was a haven for eloping English couples taking advantage of Scottish law to legally wed at 14 (for boys) and 12 (for girls) without parental consent. Nowadays, a huge outlet store is the main attraction.

In a field just behind the shopping center stands a small pile of rocks. Some are colored in red, white, and blue — the shades of the union flag — and carry slogans like “Stay Together” and “Never Apart.” Passersby are invited to stop a while and add a stone in honor.

This is the “Auld Acquaintance Cairn,” the brainchild of Rory Stewart, erstwhile deputy governor in Iraq and now a Conservative member of parliament on the English side of the border. It is meant to symbolize the connections between the different parts of the United Kingdom. Stewart had said he hoped it would reach nine feet tall. But it was barely a third of that with less than three weeks to polling day. In the half an hour I spent at the cairn, nobody else stopped by.

The message is clear: The No side might still be the favorite to stumble across the finish line first in the coming referendum, but it has singularly failed to make an emotional case for the United Kingdom. A Better Together activist told me recently, “It is like a business transaction. I look at the sums; they don’t add up, so you don’t do it.” This might be a good reason to reject independence, but such instrumentality hardly bodes well for the union’s future health — and such sentiments leave plenty of room for uncertainty about what will happen on Sept. 18.

Nationalists have won the argument that Scotland could be a separate state. The question now is whether they can persuade their fellow Scots that it should be. If they can, what seemed unimaginable just a few months ago could become a reality.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Cameron heads north to woo Scotland. But is he his own worst enemy?

With his Eton education and clipped vowels, David Cameron is often seen as quintessentially English. But lately the British prime minister has been talking up his Scottish heritage – with particular emphasis on Clan Cameron’s motto, “Let us unite.”

As September’s referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom draws closer, Mr. Cameron is becoming increasingly concerned about a burgeoning shift among Scots towards the pro-independence side, which prompted a rare visit to Scotland today to press the unionist case in person.

But observers warn that the Conservative prime minister may be in a no-win situation north of the border, where he crystallizes Scotland’s nationalist and anti-Tory sentiments while not yet offering a constructive alternative to undecided Scottish voters.

“These token trips mean virtually nothing,” says Karly Kehoe, a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University. “What the politicians at Westminster need to demonstrate to the Scottish public is that they understand the level of debate taking place here and that they are engaged with the issues.”

A Tory in a Scottish land

Cameron told reporters in Glasgow today that he would be making an “unrelentingly positive” case for the union over the coming months. Speaking at the start of a two-day visit, the Conservative party leader said: “My message is simple. We want Scotland to stay. We are all enriched by being together. Scotland puts the great into Great Britain.”David-Cameron-001

But his appearance in Scotland’s largest city was a low-key affair – hardly surprisingly given his party’s travails in Scotland. The Tories, the largest party in England, holds just one of 59 Scottish seats in the UK parliament at Westminster. Many Scots still blame Margaret Thatcher for the deindustrialization that ravaged many Scottish cities. When the former Conservative leader died last year, hundreds attended a celebratory street party in Glasgow’s main square.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which controls the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, has described independence as an opportunity to end Tory rule in Scotland forever. SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon dismissed Cameron’s visit, saying “We will be better off if all decisions on our future are made here in Scotland rather than by an out-of-touch Tory elite at Westminster.”

Although polling has consistently put the unionists ahead so far, there has been disquiet about Better Together, the cross-party “No” campaign supported by Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Opponents of independence have been accused of relying on a lugubrious message and of failing to make a compelling case for maintaining the union.

Recent reports that Westminster suppressed the findings of a government-funded opinion poll thatindicated a rise in nationalist sentiment have fed this narrative.

Bane or boon for the “no” vote?

But with the Sept. 18 vote to end the Union of 1707 only months away, Cameron is caught in an awkward position when it comes to Scotland, says James Maxwell, a Scottish political commentator at the New Statesman.

“The SNP accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say. Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing. [The SNP] are quite good at playing that populist anti-Tory card.”

While Cameron’s visit could possibly be a boon for his independence-supporting opponents, the British leader had no choice but to risk an appearance, says Maxwell. “If [Cameron] just systematically avoids Scotland for four months it would be awfully embarrassing, not just for him and for the conservative party but for the no campaign more broadly.”

Cameron has consistently rejected calls from Yes Scotland to participate in a live TV debate with SNP leader Alex Salmond. Some, like Arthur Midwinter, visiting professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh, believe that Cameron should go further and keep out of the independence campaign completely.

“My view is that Cameron should leave it to the Scottish secretary [Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael] to argue on behalf of the UK government and for [Labour MP and Better Together leader] Alistair Darling to speak for Better Together,” says Professor Midwinter. “Cameron should stay away from the campaign. I don’t think it’s helpful to have him coming here and presenting arguments. This is really a matter for Scots.”

But the prime minister’s visit could end up benefiting both sides in the independence debate, says Alex Massie, an experienced watcher of Scottish politics and a commentator for the Spectator.

“We are accustomed to viewing politics as a zero-sum game in which there is an identifiable winner and an equally identifiable loser. But the prime minister of the United Kingdom coming to Scotland to talk about the strengths and the advantages of the union is an exception to that general rule of political punditry,” Mr. Massie says. “I think it’s actually a win-win for both sides. Both sides will get out of it what they want.”

Nonetheless, he doesn’t expect Cameron’s visit to move the needle much overall. “The notion that this will have a major impact on the referendum is, I suspect, exaggerated.”

This piece originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

Ulster Unionism’s on defensive over Scotland – but threats won’t win argument

On September 18, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. A ‘Yes’ vote would bring to an end the 1707 Union, leaving behind a rump United Kingdom, comprising England, Wales and a Northern Ireland constitutionally marooned from its nearest – both geographically and emotionally – UK neighbour.

Clearly, Northern Ireland has a lot at stake in September’s plebiscite. Nationalists and unionists alike wonder if Scottish independence could have a domino effect, propelling the “break-up of Britain” foreshadowed by Scottish nationalist writer Tom Nairn more than three decades ago leading, eventually, to a United Ireland.

But the response from both sides of the Northern Irish divide to this prospect has been markedly different.

Nationalists have had surprisingly little – at least in public – to say on the subject of Scottish independence. Of course, most would welcome any loosening of the ties that bind the United Kingdom, but they are aware, too, of the politically toxic nature of sectarianism in Scotland.

saltireAn overt intervention from Sinn Fein would be political poison for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party. So they stand on the sidelines, issue the odd murmur and cross their fingers for a ‘Yes’ on September 18.

Unionists, on the other hand, seem to be growing restive. Wary of their kin across the Irish Sea flying the constitutional nest, unionists have become increasingly vocal – which is a problem, because their voice is often shrill, their message shallow.

Take Ian Paisley Jnr‘s comments this week. A ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland would, the North Antrim MP said, be a spur for dissident republican violence, destabilising Northern Ireland and unravelling the gains of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is unclear how a democratic referendum in another part of the United Kingdom could give succour to gunmen who have minimal support even within their own communities.

If anything, the SNP’s success proves beyond a reasonable doubt the supremacy of constitutional means. Regardless of the result in September, Alex Salmond and his party have shown that it is the ballot box – not the Armalite – that works.

Paisley said his comments were designed to awaken supporters of the Union from a complacent stupor arising from the ‘No’ side’s commanding poll lead in Scotland. But his reductio ad absurdum is likely to have the opposite effect, marginalising unionists still further from the heart of the Scottish debate.

In fairness, Paisley is not the only unionist who has tried – and failed – to engage with the question of Scottish independence. In 2012, the Orange Order’s Dr David Hume said people of Ulster Scots descent in Northern Ireland should have a vote in September’s referendum.

Speaking to a Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland event in Glasgow, Dr Hume said: “We are stakeholders, as well. Surely a decision such as this should not ignore our input?”

But nobody is denying unionists’ “input” into the Scottish debate. Extending the franchise to people of Scottish descent in Northern Ireland is completely unworkable – by the same token, what about those in Canada? Australia? England? – but unionists are free to make their case for the Union, to appeal to their Scottish brethren’s hearts and heads.

Instead, unionists have pleaded for a vote, or issued thinly-veiled warnings about a return to the Troubles if Scotland decides to go it alone.

Such aggressive tactics are unlikely to prove popular with the Scottish electorate, but, more importantly, they reveal the depth of the existential crisis at the heart of unionism, both in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

What is the positive case for the Union? This is not a flippant question. Just this week, former Labour Scottish first minister Henry McLeish, writing in The Scotsman, asked why “there is still no sense of urgency about making a positive and modern case for the Union, no sense of grasping the seriousness of the ‘Yes’ campaign and the impact it is making and no sense of the public disillusionment with Westminster politics?”

That is not to say there is no positive case that unionists can make. Historically, the United Kingdom proved so successful precisely because it is so flexible and capable of reinvention, as Linda Colley reminds us in her new book, Acts of Union and Disunion.

But contemporary unionists seem to be lacking invention. Since the Second World War, unionism has struggled to forge a creative sense of shared identity across these islands.

Meanwhile, the constitutional settlement has come under renewed pressure. Regardless of the result in September, power will continue to seep from Westminster to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and even, perhaps, a separate English parliament.

The year 2014 is the centenary of another, oft-forgotten constitutional upheaval: the Government of Ireland Act. Even if the First World War had not intervened, unionist resistance might have put paid to Home Rule.

But, 100 years on, unionists now need to develop a compelling, non-coercive case for maintaining the Union. If their attempts to join the Scottish independence debate are anything to go by, they have a long way to go.

This column originally appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, 10 January 2014.

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

Referendum fever is crossing the Irish Sea

LAST Saturday, Tyrone defeated Derry in the final of the McKenna Cup at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Among the sell-out crowd was an unlikely acolyte of Ulster GAA: Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson. While right-wing unionists decried the DUP leader’s first trip to a GAA match as treachery, Robinson appeared to enjoy the game, even signing autographs inside the stadium.

Robinson’s companion at Saturday’s match was Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. Judging by the shared smiles and chatter inside the VIP area at the Athletic Grounds, it seems fair to say that the deputy and First Minister were talking more about sport than politics.

Whether McGuinness mentioned his intention to push for a referendum on the constitutional future of the north to Robinson during the half-time break on Saturday will probably never be known, but in an interview published in Monday’s Irish Examiner, the deputy First Minister stated clearly for the first time his party’s desire for a vote on Irish unification in the near future. “It just seems to me to be a sensible timing,” he said. “It would be on the question of whether or not the people of the Six Counties wish to retain the link with the United Kingdom, or be part of a united Ireland.”

Referendums, it seems, are in the Irish Sea air. Both emboldened by and envious of the SNP’s recent success, Sinn Fein is keen to capitalise on the new, more fluid dispensation towards the UK’s constitutional future by putting the issue of Irish unity firmly on the political agenda.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a referendum on Irish unification can be held no more than once every seven years. Any decision on such a plebiscite rests with the British secretary of state, although in practice it would require support from the DUP and even the Ulster Unionist party if it were to be given the green light.

McGuinness outlined a provisional timetable for such a referendum, saying that the vote could take place in the next Assembly term, possibly as early as 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising, the republican revolt that, eventually, paved the way for Irish independence. Comparisons with Bannockburn and 2014 have, unsurprisingly, not taken long to surface.

And yet, the political reality of Sinn Fein’s referendum gambit is very different to that of the SNP. Barring an act of God, a referendum on Irish unity in 2016 would be roundly rejected by Northern Irish voters. According to the 2001 census, just over 53 per cent of the population hails from a Protestant background, with 44 per cent from a Catholic background. However, the most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that 73 per cent backed the union with Britain: among that figure were 52 per cent of Catholics.

Putting the debate about a united Ireland on the political agenda appears to be the driving logic. Sinn Fein has watched with no little interest as the tenor of the independence debate in Scotland has shifted from process to specifics.

The ripple effects of the Scottish referendum are being felt across the UK: from Liberal Democrat power-broker Simon Hughes’ calls for an English parliament, to the wary glances being thrown northwards by Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones. But it is in Northern Ireland, with its long-established nationalist and unionist tribes, where any moves towards independence in Scotland are likely to be most keenly felt, and politically exploited.

Ironically it was McGuinness who cautioned Northern Irish politicians against getting involved in Scottish politics. Speaking before the Stormont Assembly last month he described Scottish independence as “an issue which could be used to create divisions in this house or even in our Executive or even between the First Minister and myself”.

For their part, Northern Irish unionists have made little secret of their position on the Scottish question. Speaking at a British-Irish Council summit in Dublin earlier this year, Peter Robinson spoke of his own Scottish roots and his desire for “Edinburgh to remain within the United Kingdom”. Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliot wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that “this is a time for us all, as unionists together, to support a continuance of a strong United Kingdom”.

A referendum on Irish unity would place Westminster in a bind. The Good Friday Agreement avers that the future of Northern Ireland will be settled by a majority vote of its people. Given the north’s turbulent history and its fractious relationship with Westminster, it would be difficult to countenance a Conservative or Labour leader wading in on the side of the union. Any repeat of the cross-party support marshalled against Scottish independence could have disastrous, even fatal, consequences in Northern Ireland.

All this talk of constitutional change omits one key player: the Republic of Ireland. In Dublin, appetite for unification is scant and getting scanter. The economic cost of absorbing the heavily subsidised Northern Irish state would almost certainly be beyond the Irish state in its current hairshirt incarnation. Indeed Sinn Fein owes its recent electoral success south of the border more to its left-wing position on social justice and employment than any tropes of republican history.

In Ireland right now, it’s a referendum that might not happen that’s prompting the most public discussion. A recent Red C poll showed that 72 per cent of the Irish electorate wants a plebiscite on the latest EU treaty. If Irish voters do get their wish, this’ll be one political game Westminster, Holyrood and Stormont will all be watching with interest.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, February 1.