Sunday, 31 August 2014

What Scottish independence could mean for Ireland

There has been much talk lately about the possible effect of Scottish independence on other parts of the UK. The obvious questions being asked are 'will Wales be next?' and 'could we see a united Ireland?'.

I'll come on to Wales in another post. But on this occasion I will shift my focus some 30 miles across the North Channel to a province with a turbulent history. It is of course no surprise that many Irish Nationalists will be eagerly watching what happens in Scotland on 19th September because it may help to galvanise their own objective for a Northern Ireland free from British rule and reunited with the Republic of Ireland.

In respect to Northern Ireland it's an awkward issue to try and read. Broadly speaking I would be in favour of a united Ireland. More immediately I feel that the province's political association with the UK is toxic. The union with Great Britain may have been suitable in the past when there was heavy industry like before 1970 when the Troubles began. From the perspective of people in Great Britain itself , Northern Ireland is an embarrassment. The Unionist assertion of 'British identity' is as far as I'm concerned an Ulster brand and therefore ironically an Irish brand. Most people in England, Scotland and Wales are not interested in going on marches dressed in orange wearing sashes, bowler hats and twirling batons. They'd far rather do things like go and watch a football match, go for a ramble, go ten-pin bowling, go to gigs, go to pubs or whatever other random thing I can name. Basically the people of Great Britain like to just do something exciting. So if all these Union Jack fanatics want to be 'more British' how about they be more like people on 'mainland Britain' - like, well more fun?

The matter of Northern Ireland's future should be debated a lot more on practical and economic matters rather than being a debate simply between two counter-nationalisms. I would love Northern Ireland to have the debate that Scotland is having, that is to say a civilised debate where not a bullet is fired and no blood is shed. What I feel would be reassuring is incidentally for more and more Catholics to come out in favour of the union with the UK while more and more Protestants aspire to reunification with the rest of Ireland. The debate then becomes more secular as Catholics and Protestants unite on the same side on both sides.

Cave Hill near Belfast

The Northern Irish debate would be somewhat different to the debate in Scotland for obvious reasons. The debate would generally be about a choice between two unions - the British and the Irish unions. As Scotland becomes independent Northern Ireland now becomes an exclave of the UK and, other than flying, the only way to travel to the mainland UK without going through a separate sovereign state is to take the longer boat journey to Liverpool. Which means the British Unionist argument in Northern Ireland about 'not wanting to create borders' would be, in contrast with the equivalent argument in Scotland, much weaker and rather laughable considering the elephant in the room which is the border with the Republic created as a result of Unionists wanting Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. Oh the irony! Scotland, as the nearest part of Great Britain to Northern Ireland is a key cornerstone in the Unionists' attachment to the British state. Many of them are of course Scots by descent. So they may well begin to question the purpose of a union of which Scotland is not part especially when there's the European Union. I wouldn't be surprised if more and more of them see a union with the Republic as making more sense especially as the economy in the South starts to improve.

However, to get from one union to the other, Northern Ireland would possibly have to secede first. The people of the Republic aren't necessarily that much in favour of absorbing the North and Northern Ireland, if it does vote for Irish reunification, will have to ask the Republic's permission which they can't take for granted. There are some sections of Northern Ireland's population that would favour an independent Northern Ireland (or 'Ulster') but they're much smaller in number and mainly in the Unionist community who would want Northern Ireland to remain as an entity distinct from the rest of Ireland. Most people in Northern Ireland however would likely not see any economic viability in an independent Northern Ireland while a united Ireland with provincial devolution would be more ideal. As a new generation that has never known the Troubles grows up and they in turn produce another generation many of them will be more concerned with their own job prospects and their personal finances than any politics of identity. Whether they stay part of the UK or rejoin the UK would mainly be an economic debate for them.

The Northern Ireland - Irish Republic Border

It's fair to say Northern Ireland and the Republic do have their superficial differences as a product of their political difference. If you've ever gone by car to the Republic from the North you'll immediately notice that the road-signs look completely different, not just that they're bilingual in the Republic but they're of a different format altogether as are the road markings. The registration plates on cars in the Republic are also different to those on cars in the North. It therefore raises the question of how Northern Ireland would be effectively integrated into the Republic when the North's infrastructure may need a large overhaul and people across the province would have to spend time adjusting to the new-look highways. All that could cost money but many may see it as a small expense if they feel they would be better off as part of the Republic of Ireland.

I look forward to hearing such a debate unfold but only if it is a peaceful debate. A unified independent Ireland looks to me like a natural and sensible arrangement but what I would like to see more than Irish unity is Northern Irish unity. The debate about Northern Ireland must transcend the province's traditional sectarian divide and be an enlightened discussion. Scotland's current debate could go a long way to inspire such a discussion.

Thanks to Game of Thrones, Northern Ireland enjoys a more favourable reputation these days as a filming location.