Scotland’s Two Referendums

Last Tuesday night, I watched, along with most of Scotland, two besuited, middle-aged men argue with each other on national television for the best part of two hours. In the main it was pretty unedifying stuff.

Alastair Darling refused to accept that Scotland could function as an independent country; Alex Salmond made the frankly bizarre decision to waste valuable minutes asking facile questions about ‘Project Fear’ scare stories. The crowd booed and cheered on cue. All in all there was little – if anything – to differentiate this from the ‘Punch and Judy’ politics that nationalists have, rightly, chastised Westminster for.

The most depressing aspect of Tuesday’s debate was the message, not the medium. Gone was the rich discussion, the subtle ambiguities that have characterised a goodly portion of the independence debate beyond the podium and the dispatch box.

Referendums are, by their nature, notoriously Manichean things. Only two choices: yes or no; stick or twist; black or white.

But Tuesday’s debate played into another independence referendum binary: that the whole business is a waste of time, a distraction that has siphoned valuable time and money away from dealing with ‘real issues’. (In Britain, sadly, constitutional change has seldom been treated as a ‘real issue’ until far too late.)

This dystopian take on democratic politics has infused much of the media coverage of the Scottish debate over the past two years, and has been made explicit by political parties on both sides of the border. Watching Salmond and Darling slug it out in front of a live studio audience, such cynicism felt all too justified.

Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling at the end of the Scottish independence debateBut there is another referendum happening in Scotland right now.

A few hours before the STV debate, this other referendum was alive and well and trundling up and down the streets of Govan on what looked like a cross between a milk cart and an ice cream van. Standing atop the ‘Margo Mobile’, Jim Sillars declared to anyone that would listen that ‘we can make a better country than this’. A fleet of volunteers handed out badges and stickers.

Over the next five weeks or so, the Margo Mobile is due to call at housing estates and towns across the Central Belt. The whole enterprise was funded by donations. The conversations that take place won’t be beamed live into the houses of millions – but they matter just the same.

Many of these discussions – the kind I have heard everywhere from Coatbridge to Cowdenbeath in recent months – will not have definite answers or end-points. ‘How can Scotland become a better place to live in?’ ‘How can we make the best of the resources we have?’ ‘What constitutional set-up is best for a small nation in the 21st century?’ None of these are questions that invite easy responses.

Undecideds, we are are constantly told, want facts. That’s simply not true. We all know that there is only one certainty about the future. (It’s called ‘life assurance’ for a reason.) The rest is guesswork, supported by various degrees of evidence and assumption.

What undecided voters – and everybody else – want is to believe what they are being told. When Alex Salmond tells them that there will be no hiccups on the road to statehood – that the EU, Westminster, and everyone else will simply fall into line after ‘Yes’ vote – they don’t believe it. Most Yes voters I know don’t believe really it, either.

If it is a ‘no’, the deciding factor could well have been the decision to assume that the referendum is about what took place on Tuesday night in the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, not on Tuesday morning on the streets of Govan. That the electorate wants easy answers and soundbites, not a vision of the future ballasted by a recognition of the realities of the present.

Yes Scotland, implicitly or explicitly, decided two years ago that voters would reject nuance and complexity, that they would baulk at the first sign that independence was anything other than the merest of pin pricks. Hence the decision to keep the Queen, Nato, Sterling, etc.

As a political move in a post-New Labour era of triangulation this ‘don’t scare the horses’ approach is understandable. But polls – and simple observation – suggest this strategy has not worked. Nobody really believes dismantling the union would be painless – but many could have been convinced that the discomfort would have been worthwhile.

The referendum campaign should make us more hopeful about democracy in Scotland. The people – ‘ordinary voters’ – can handle nuance and complexity. They could have accepted being told, ‘independence is a big project. There will be bumps on the road but in ten year’s time, 20 year’s time, there will be a better future for you, for your children.’ Some would have decided the risk was not worth other it; others would have the opposition calculation.

This referendum has engaged people politically in a way I have never seen before in my lifetime. The danger, though, is that this energy might be lost – or reduced to stale set pieces like we saw on Tuesday night. Whatever the result on September 18, if this is allowed to happen, Scotland will have lost.


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.

Stormont needs to take a leaf out of Scotland's book to eradicate sectarianism

From Irish Times comment pages, November 16.

OPINION: SCOTLAND’S “SECRET shame” is anything but a clandestine affair these days. Between Uefa’s clampdown on repugnant chanting at Rangers and Celtic’s European nights and First Minister Alex Salmond’s pledge to “eradicate” bigotry, sectarianism in Scotland has never received so much attention.

Speaking at the Scottish National Party’s conference in Inverness last month, justice minister Kenny MacAskill was unequivocal. “These are songs of hate and there is no place for them in a modern Scotland . . . It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916. It’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.”

Scottish sectarianism is, thankfully, no longer structural – in 2004, for example, just four cases that appeared before employment tribunals in Scotland had any sectarian connotations – but it lives on as bigotry, particularly inside Old Firm stadiums. A controversial Bill to outlaw sectarian singing at football matches is currently progressing through the Holyrood parliament.

Since 2006, Scotland is the only place on the planet that possesses both a sizeable Irish Catholic and Protestant population and an anti-sectarian strategy. The contrast with the situation across the Irish Sea could not be starker.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government has no anti-sectarianism policy. More than 13 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement and the ending of a conflict that cost more than 3,000 lives, Stormont has yet to agree a formal strategy to address the sectarian division.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act the Executive must formulate a policy for encouraging “good relations”. This requirement led, in the early years of the last decade, to A Shared Future, essentially a blueprint for a post-sectarian society based on reciprocity and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the document was published in 2005 into a political vacuum. When Stormont was finally reinstated two years later, the policy, which cost millions to formulate but was tainted by association with direct rule ministers, was shelved by the DUP and Sinn Féin, and a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, offered in its place. Silence followed.

Finally put out for public consultation last year as a condition for the devolution of policing and justice powers, the document is lightweight, insubstantial and implausible. Responses, which can be accessed on the web, are almost universally critical, accusing the strategy of relying on an unhelpful, static view of identity, failing to build on existing work and lacking a clear vision for moving beyond sectarianism.

Forget cordite, the whiff coming off the Stormont administration smells more like bromide. Time and again First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reiterate their commitment to working together to improve Northern Ireland’s lot, but the results belie the rhetoric.

There is still no agreed programme for government and little indication of how a public sector-dependent economy will weather Westminster-enforced austerity, which saw £500 million lopped off Stormont’s block grant this year. Meanwhile, the Executive has established an all-party working group to advise on revising the strategy. An action plan is due by Christmas – but so far the working group has met just three times.

The cost of the North’s failure to address sectarianism is colossal. According to Alastair Adair of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, duplication of services, particularly segregation in education and housing, costs about £1.5 billion.

But the financial implications pale into insignificance compared to the social damage caused by tribal division. As Robin Wilson pointed out recently, violence declined from 2002 to 2007 but has risen since the reinstatement of the Assembly. The annual Northern Ireland Life and Times survey attests to deteriorating public optimism about community relations, and the sectarian “Other”, since 2007.

Despite the peace process successes, the possibility of resectarianisation remains. Belfast is still by far the most residentially segregated city in Europe. This legacy of division won’t disappear of its own accord.

The Executive needs to take a leaf out of Scotland’s anti-sectarian book. Tackling Northern Ireland’s shame requires a robust, thought-out policy with coherent objectives and political will.