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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece first appeared in the Sunday Herald, August 16

How Hollywood threw Shane Jones into the spotlight

Director Spike Jonze’s interest in surreal debut novel Light Boxes is a career boost.

February is persecuting the town. It has been snowing for 300 days, children are disappearing and all forms of flight are banned. The downtrodden residents are on the verge of revolt – but can they succeed? We might be less than halfway through 2010 but already it looks like the gong for the year’s most original literary premise has been taken: by Light Boxes, the debut novel from American writer Shane Jones.

“February is the writer of the story. He is a month, a season, but he’s also a person, he’s the writer of the book,” Jones, speaking from his home in Albany, upstate New York, explains in clipped, East Coast tones. He admits to finding the inevitable “what’s your book about?” questions difficult – although when your debut clocks in at around 20,000 words, features multiple voices, one-word chapters, and a malevolent season hellbent on destruction that transforms into a blocked novelist, distilling it all down into a Cliffs Notes summary paragraph is always going to prove tricky.

Aged just 30, Jones has a relaxed, amiable manner – his languid speech peppered with “cools” and “weirds” – but behind the Light Boxes’s quirky exterior lie dark, foreboding themes. The book is streaked through with melancholia, sadness and loss: a reflection, in part, of the author’s own struggles with depression. “Historically I’d get my most depressed in February,” he says. “March is a terrible month too, but February is the worst. It’s often the time when I feel lowest, when the depression is worst.”

Although not identified directly in the book, Jones admits that Light Boxes is set in his native New England. The most northeasterly region of the US is often depicted as the home of Liberal America. It played a prominent role in the movement to abolish slavery, is staunchly Democratic, and even boasts the only democratic socialist ever elected to the US Congress but, in Jones’s rendering, February has turned his homeland into a humourless, totalitarian state.

Bordered by Canada and the Atlantic, New England is renowned for its long, sub-zero winters, and its harsh, rugged landscape is evoked throughout Light Boxes. “I lived in Buffalo [in New York state] for four years and the running joke was the weather,” Jones explains. “It was so cold and dark. And by far the coldest and the darkest month was February – just when you thought that winter was finally ending it came back at you. That feeling has never really left me.”

Written in pithy, image-rich sentences, there is a frenetic, absorbing immediacy to Light Boxes. A published poet, Jones possesses a commendable economy of words, sketching characters in silhouette, most notably Thaddeus Lowe, the heroic balloonist-cum-insurrectionist in whose voice significant portions of the book are written. Thaddeus Lowe, the author clarifies, was an ingenious Civil War-era inventor from New Hampshire and friend of Abraham Lincoln’s that Jones first came across while working in a secondhand bookstore. “There was a biography of him where I worked. Lowe was credited with forging the navy and air surveillance. During the Civil War he did reconnaissance in the South for the North – Mark Twain said he was the most shot-at man during the war. That image of him in his balloon always stuck with me. So I just placed him straight into the story.”

On paper Jones fits easily into the same stock categories as most contemporary American literary successes – young, East Coast-educated, major publishing house backing – but appearances can be deceptive. He read English at the State University of New York in Buffalo, not Harvard or Yale, and even then he didn’t exactly shine. “I was a terrible student,” the author freely admits. “I almost failed college completely. I had to move back in with my parents and take Latin at SUNY Albany just to finish my degree.”

It was while living in his folks’ basement, along with his new wife Melanie, that Jones started writing Light Boxes. Although his poetry and short stories had been published in various online magazines and small-run fanzines, the writer says he was “amazed” when Publishing Genius, an independent press based in Baltimore, decided, in early 2009, to print 500 copies of his novel. Less than four months later, director Spike Jonze had bought up the film rights, catapulting his (almost) namesake into the eye of a stormy bidding war.

“It just goes to show that you don’t need to write the Da Vinci Code to be picked up,” Jones says of the experience. Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, Jones’s new publishers, are certainly not treating his debut like a generic Dan Brown novel; at barely six inches in height and filled with lists, illustrations and unorthodox typesetting, Light Boxes is one of the smallest, most unusual looking offerings on this, or any, summer’s bookshelves.

“I just hope it doesn’t get lost on the shelf, between the pages of a Thomas Pynchon novel,” he laughs. Jones ranks the author of Gravity’s Rainbow high in his list of literary inspirations – alongside Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace – but reserves special praise for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose magical realist influences permeate through Light Boxes.

“One Hundred Years Of Solitude was a book that really changed the way I write. I’m a middle-class white guy who had a fairly easy upbringing. I really wanted to write like [Charles] Bukowski but his life was so different to mine. I was 20 years old and writing about bar-room brawls and f***ing girls, stuff I wasn’t doing. But when I read One Hundred Years Of Solitude it made me feel OK to be a bit fantastical, a bit whimsical, a bit quirky.”

Garrulous yet self-deprecating, in person Jones is a world away from the likes of Bukowski and Burroughs. During the course of our two-hour conversation he, slightly sheepishly, admits that it is his first phone interview – he even researched The Herald on Wikipedia the previous night in preparation.

But while Jones would “love to come and visit Scotland”, that all depends on getting time off from his day job. Remarkably the writer still works 9-to-5 as an administrator for the New York State Senate, which is based in Albany. So far his colleagues have been puzzled by his literary endeavours: “People at work don’t get the book at all. They are all conservative, crew cuts, slacks. They are almost Attila the Hun conservative, and they think that I’m the most bizarre person ever.”

Jones has been tempted by the allure of writing for a living but admits to worrying about “what I’d do with myself” and, even more, what his parents’ response to any sudden career change would be. “My family are not artistic people. My father worked in the police department and my mother did secretary work. If I decided to just be a writer they would be completely terrified. They would think that I’m screwing up my life.”

Whether Shane Jones remains an administrator in upstate New York or becomes a full-time novelist also depends on his ability to keep producing stories – and premises – like Light Boxes once the Spike Jonze-induced hype has faded into the ether. “For me right now it’s all about what do I have to do to get another book published? Will Hamish Hamilton be interested in another novel? I hope they will be but right now I don’t know anything for certain. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”

Appeared in The Sunday Herald, June 7