Kevin Toolis: No price to put on passion

People dig with their bare hands in the aftermath of a bomb in the Shankhill Road, Belfast. Picture: PA
People dig with their bare hands in the aftermath of a bomb in the Shankhill Road, Belfast. Picture: PA
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As the Irish struggle showed, the desire for independence comes from the heart and comes before all else; questions of policy and economic issues are largely irrelevant, writes Kevin Toolis

The year is 1991 and in the small County Tyrone village of Cappagh the air is bright with murder.

As I sit on a bare chair facing the wall two men behind me with pillow cases over their heads uncurl a scrolling litany of whackings, assassinations, car bombings and sporadic killings in their endless war against their hated enemy, “the Brits.”

The two men are commanders within a hardened Provisional IRA active service unit, the East Tyrone Brigade, that is enmeshed in a three-sided war against the SAS and loyalist paramilitaries for control of Tyrone’s green fields.

In Tyrone at that time, ambush lurked behind every hedge and the hearts of men are filled with vengeance. More than 30 men have been killed in a complex web of assassinations, SAS ambushes, and bomb attacks on British army bases. And these men, these killers, have also lost personal friends.

In the tawdry room the men’s voices, I never saw their faces, are filled with a hatred so old and so ancient it could fill the universe. Their aim is simple – to go on fighting until they have removed “the Brits” from their own green fields. It is a war they believe they have been fighting for centuries.

Their belief in the rightness of their cause is absolute. These atavistic IRA soldiers have no plan, no great vision of a future united Ireland, no understanding of the economic underpinning of the Northern Irish state.

And they have with total certainty never heard of the Barnett Formula whereby the UK Treasury expends £2,000 more per head annually on every one of Her Majesty’s Northern Irish subjects than those in England.

That war in the killing fields of Cappagh is thankfully over but the lessons of Ireland’s Troubles are still of some relevance for the Scottish referendum debate. Although there are significant historical differences undoubtedly Ireland remains the sole role model of a state removing itself from within the British Union.

Citing the latest polls showing over 50 per cent in favour of a no vote, the Westminster political elite have largely convinced themselves that Alex Salmond faces inevitable defeat in September 2014. And if the debate was restricted solely to economic arguments then victory for the No camp would be assured. Who would leave a well- padded 300-year-old marriage to strike out on their own for the bedsit?

But such an assumption fatally misunderstands the moral grounds which underpin the nationalist ethos whether it is Irish or Scottish nationalism.

To its adherents the nationalist goal is a self-evident moral truth that reaches far beyond rational argument, personal ambitions or petty quibbles about economics.

The Troubles endured for decades because the IRA’s belief system endured and a determined cadre of otherwise sane and rational IRA men would plant car bombs daily in their own native city Belfast. They would murder, maim, and destroy the infrastructure of their own communities. Hundreds of IRA volunteers were killed and thousands of Irish republicans spent decades of their lives in prison. It was much the same for the loyalists with their competing Ulster “Orangeist” reactionary nationalism.

As a motivational force economic wellbeing and the prospective GDP of a future ‘32 County Socialist Irish Republic’ was utterly irrelevant. The intrinsic moral good of the nationalist goal trumped all personal sacrifice, the dirge filled funeral processions, the killings of the innocent and the loss. The Provisional IRA’s core nationalist cause, at least, was immune to reason.

Although I was born and grew up in Edinburgh, I spent 15 years reporting on Ireland’s Troubles for my book Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul. I spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours, in the company of IRA men and women asking about their war. I can honestly say that I cannot recall one single serious conversation about economics. Ever.

Scotland does not share Ireland’s bloody past but the absolutism of the nationalist ethos comes from the same well. For those who believe, the rightness of Scottish independence is self-evidently immune from abstruse arguments on future North Sea oil reserves.

Ipso facto the world will be a better place simply because Scotland is an independent country regardless of what sort of country it turns out to be.

This nationalist endeavour binds and unites even those who would otherwise be political foes. Over the decades, the IRA’s political mouthpiece Sinn Fein has morphed from a fanatical murderous Catholic piety to doggerel prison-inspired Marxist philosophy and back to a comfortable acceptance of free market economics amongst the current 14 Sinn Fein TDs in Irish Dail. “The Republican movement moves to the right and then moves to the left and back again but the goal unswervingly remains the same,” says the astute IRA observer and writer Eamonn McCann.

And undoubtedly the SNP contains the same dissonant amalgam of political opposites united in the same nationalist bond. But far from weakening the SNP such political diversity can allow the party to be all things to all men provided you sign up for the basic nationalist premise.

The concentration on the distant key goal always allows a nationalist leadership to defer awkward present political problems. And it weakens the attack of your enemies as you never present a clear target.

Not every Northern Irish Catholic was a republican. Revolt and terrorism is always a minority trade. For decades the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), natural allies of the British Labour Party, bore the standard of the voice of constitutional Irish nationalism.

But after the 1994 IRA ceasefire and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement the intensity of the more absolutist voice of Sinn Fein overwhelmed the SDLP’s “half-house” nationalism even within constitutional politics. “Compromise” is a dirty word in nationalist politics.

Sinn Fein has since become the overwhelmingly dominant nationalist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly with 29 MLAs as opposed to just 14 for the SDLP – which has crumbled into irrelevance.

So what does the recent nationalist enterprise in Ireland tell us in relation to the Scottish referendum?

Several things. Whatever the polls say, the Yes believers are likely to turn out in far greater numbers to vote as they have an unequivocal belief in their cause. This nationalist base is far more united and no amount of negative arguments, economic or otherwise, will deter them.

Inevitably, the No camp has a far harder task. How do you get your electorate to get up in the morning and go to the polling station to positively vote No? The No camp can appeal either by dangerously sophisticated complex constitutional or economic arguments. Or they can drive their voters to the polls negatively by blind fear.

The lessons of Ireland are however of little comfort for Unionism. Regardless of who picks up the bill, the political prizes usually go to those with the sharpest nationalist defined goals rather than a luke-warm marriage bed of compromise. If the nationalists can set the clock, the agenda, for everything to be measured up against the “N” of nationalism then all countervailing arguments, and the cause of Unionism, are doomed because all those political positions will always fail the SNP nationalist bar test. There is no positive ground for the Unionist camp to occupy, just a slow defeatist retreat towards the nationalist position.

That ascendant nationalist party will in time strangle and destroy the half-hearted, equivocating political rivals. “Compromise” is indeed a dirty word in nationalist politics.

• Kevin Toolis is the writer and director of the political play The Confessions of Gordon Brown which will run daily from 31 July – 26 August at the Pleasance Courtyard at 1:45pm during the Edinburgh Festival http://www.pleasance.co.uk/edinburgh/events/the-confessions-of-gordon-brown