The referendum debate is crossing class, community and religion. Scotland is better for it, writes Lesley Riddoch
Does Ireland have any place in the Scottish independence debate?
Most observers would quickly chorus No.
Better Together distanced itself from the Orange Order last week after it registered as a No campaigning group and announced plans for a march through central Edinburgh just before the referendum. Yes campaigners have been equally anxious to avoid comparisons between Scotland and the bloody, fractious Irish independence struggle of the last century. Nor – since the Arc of Prosperity bit the recessionary dust – has the First Minister leapt to draw any parallels with the subsidised, strife-torn North or its independent but indebted southern neighbour.
Last week, though, something changed. The designation of Ireland as the world’s best country in the first-ever Good Country Index, finally brought the Republic back in from the cold. Using UN and World Bank indicators, the Irish were found to have made the greatest single contribution to humanity and the Nordics were collectively named the most successful region. This focus on “small country” achievement added to the mood music provided by the World Cup’s battling minnows to prove again that the size of a nation is no indicator of vibrancy, outward-looking outlook or general success.
But if there was justice, a small conference at Queen’s University in Belfast last week should have brought poor, maligned Northern Ireland back into the frame as well. Not just because its cross-border relations may be a useful model for iScotland and rUK, but because Northern Ireland stands as a useful corrective to anyone who seriously thinks Scotland’s independence debate is violent or that a peaceful, democratic grassroots debate is a doddle to concoct.
Academics at Queen’s University spent a day chewing over the local implications of Scottish independence. There was not a minute spent on Schengen, border changes, or even the transaction costs of having a neighbour possibly denied the use of sterling. Perhaps that’s because professionals on both sides of the Irish border know that different currencies and economies have been amicably co-existing for some years. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the An Garda Síochána (Garda) share a radio network and an Organised Crime Task Force. Since 2010, the DVLA and Department of Transport in Dublin have shared driver details to pursue unpaid parking fines and speeding tickets. Fire and ambulances service respond to calls from either side of the border – water supplies and pollution control are run by the jointly funded Waterways Ireland and Loughs Agency, and a new radiotherapy unit in Derry/Londonderry will serve patients from the north and the Republic, saving Donegal patients a two-day round trip to Dublin. This outbreak of common sense, facility sharing stands in stark contrast to the “bad old days” when visitors from the Irish Republic needed a permit to work in the North and sat in queues for custom checks on the way home.
Evidently where there’s a joint will and a budget squeeze, there’s a way.
But just as significant were the considerable differences raised between civic society on either side of the North Sea.
Conference organiser, Scots-born Professor Graham Walker, contrasted Scotland’s class-based politics with Northern Ireland’s nationalist/unionist split and outlined how the Troubles had allowed successive Westminster governments to divert energy from addressing “the Scottish Question”.
He said: “If there is a Yes vote, clearly it’s going to lead to the break-up of the UK. Even if there is a No result, things will never be the same again as more powers are handed from Westminster to Edinburgh.”
It seems most canny Celtic observers realise the Scots referendum will trigger change across the whole UK, whatever the result – even if the Westminster bubble remains in denial.
But it was evident too that compared to the carefully choreographed “power-sharing” between parties and elites in Northern Ireland, debate in Scotland is increasingly being driven by ordinary Scots using the referendum to examine their worst fears, to discuss apparently non-related issues like land and local control, and to visualise very different types of future governance. Furthermore, if the “missing million” of hitherto unregistered voters in Scotland’s large housing estates opt to vote, the outcome and the nature of post-result Scotland will change dramatically.
Scotland is experiencing the kind of cross-community, cross-class, cross-religious engagement folk in Northern Ireland can only dream about. One former head teacher told me: “We dread ‘grassroots activism’ here because it generally means trouble. The quieter our communities, the happier we’ve all become.”
It may make life easier for managers but the semi-anaesthetised state of Northern Ireland’s communities has simply encouraged contempt.
In internet magazine Spiked, Patrick West recently asked: “Could a rump UK function? I doubt it. Northern Ireland would resemble a very odd third partner in this hypothetical, slimmed-down UK, cut off by the sea and by culture (there are no peace walls in England and only Southport has annual Orange Order parades). So if Scotland becomes independent, it has a moral obligation to take Northern Ireland with it. Ulster is, after all, far more of a Scottish colony than an English one, demographically speaking.”
And a reader’s comment adds: “Maybe Down and Antrim should go to Scotland and the rest to Ireland.”
This all sounds bizarre and yet papers released earlier this year under the 30-year rule show Margaret Thatcher seriously considered plans to redraw the Irish border in the 1980s, handing over west Belfast, most of Derry and border areas to the Republic.
All of which suggests the UK authorities view borders as negotiable in Northern Ireland and in private, but utterly immutable in Scotland and in public.
No speaker at the Belfast conference feared violence would be unleashed by the Scottish referendum result. Instead the prevailing mood was one of sadness as speakers realised British politicians wouldn’t pursue Northern Ireland with any vigour if its voters opted to roam and sadness that embattled Northern Ireland cannot reproduce the genuine, grassroots enthusiasm of Scotland’s feisty but peaceful civic debate.
Scotland is moving on from tribal preoccupations, historical gridlock and the crushing self-doubt that besets those labelled “subsidy junkies”. Despite power-sharing mechanisms, cross-border co-operation, the Chuckle Brothers and the Queen’s momentous visit last week, Northern Ireland cannot make the same claim.
All of which made the generosity of a closing remark all the more poignant: “Whatever the result, Scotland has already won.”