Barra Collins: A Union of convenience

The desire for independence is not rational, but driven by the emotions and – like love – cannot be explained, writes Barra Collins

The independence debate can be likened to a marriage where one partner wonders if they are getting what they need. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The independence debate can be likened to a marriage where one partner wonders if they are getting what they need. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The independence debate can be likened to a marriage where one partner wonders if they are getting what they need. Picture: Ian Rutherford

As AN Irishman, albeit one that has lived in the UK for the past eight years, I find the argument that “Scottish independence is a British matter” a hard one to swallow, no matter what angle I come at it. Looking back to the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic, Irish independence was born from a matter very specifically Irish: the passion and spiritual need to gain unfettered control of their destiny. A discourse about national debt and industry never featured within the Irish proclamation, but even on that front Scotland is in a much stronger place than Ireland was when the republic became a reality in 1948.

It wasn’t until 1839 that Irish Catholics could vote in any meaningful number and not until the 1903 Land Purchase Act that the majority of Irish nationals could own land. Therefore, in 1948, when the new taoiseach, John A Costello, “accidentally” announced at an official dinner in Ottowa that Ireland was to become a republic, Irish industry was not ready to sustain itself.

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In the 1950s, when other countries were enjoying a post-war boom, Ireland’s economy struggled to get off the ground. Unemployment was rife and between the 1950s and 1960s the population dipped to 2.8 million. It wasn’t until the 1970s, and through membership of the European Union, that Ireland’s industry moved from an outdated agricultural-based economy, stifled by protectionist policies, to one driven by hi-tech industry and global exports. All that said, wasn’t independence the right choice for Ireland?

It is hard not to get emotional about a topic like this. Even harder as an Irishman to express support for Scottish independence without sounding like a card-carrying supporter of sectarian violence. Therefore, I have chosen to embrace my theatrical leanings and imagine Great Britain as an Alan Ayckbourn play. Lights up on a beautifully presented, quintessentially “British”, home. Enter England, an upper-class patriarch, fallen on hard times of late. He has begun to withdraw from the company of others and finds solace in doting glances at his family portrait; unaware of their changing attitudes to him.

“Hello dear.” Enter Scotland, the matriarch. They courted in the reign of James VI and I and married shortly after in 1707. His money and trading empire were the obvious draws, but over the years she has become exasperated by her husband’s domineering ways. She controls her domestic domain to a certain extent, a doily here and a pot plant there, but she has been wondering of late what it might be like, as a lady of advanced years, to strike out on her own. She would need to be realistic about the financial situation, but his family in Europe have always liked her a lot more than him, and that’s where the true money lies.

“Morning Mammy, morning Father.” Enter Wales, a son from England’s previous marriage, and Northern Ireland, a problem child. But they are not the focus of this story. The way I understand this union of nations is as a relationship – one that is no longer fulfilling the needs and desires that burned in the (largely enforced) passion of its origin. And when a woman falls out of love with a man, she has obligations to think of him and the family they have created. But, at the end of the day, she must decide whether she is getting what she needs from this relationship.

The union of Great Britain seems a rather archaic family structure. The patriarch stands at the top of the family tree and everyone must fall behind in submission. Times have changed and family unions rise and fall with the liberal democracy of choice. “Do I make you happy?” he whispers in her ear as they sit on the Parker Knoll sipping a Chenin Blanc. “You did once, but now… I need to find myself.”

The problem for me lies in Scotland being almost completely disenfranchised from Westminster. Yes, her loving husband listens to her, but rarely does he heed her opinion. In 18 general elections since the Second World War, the Conservatives have only held a majority in Scotland once and that was in 1955. Despite that, they have formed nine governments which have assumed control of its affairs.

Much like her Celtic sister the Republic of Ireland, Scotland has a strong national identity which has refused, or is unable, to become homogenised under the Great British banner. Although their relationships with England were very different, their need for independence comes from a similar place; a need to effectively represent the views and desires of an identifiably different mind-set and culture. Daddy does not know best.

Our shared need for independence comes from the same poetical origins. Whether you’re talking Hugh MacDiarmid or Padraic Pearse, our sense of entitlement to independence is documented in our collective passion for the arts. That is why I am not worried about an independent Scotland. The need for independence is not fiscal or even rational. It’s emotional, necessary and, like love, it is something that you cannot explain, whether talking about the first tender kiss or the last glimpse of a lover as they journey into the sunset. Love, we must remember, is never smooth sailing but wouldn’t you rather be married for love than married for money? And won’t this be beautifully realised in Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop’s brave new world for funding in the arts?

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Because this need for independence cannot be rationalised; there will never be a good time for it. Like planning for a child, if you looked at it logically – let’s just say the world would be a less crowded place.

There is an important question to answer though: is Scotland ready for the financial issues that a divorce involves? Belts may need to be tightened and expectations lowered. She will not be able to look over the Border at her former husband’s estate and say: “I want the same healthcare, the same roads.”

If you have crossed the border from Northern Ireland to the Republic, you will know what I am talking about. As smooth British roads give way beneath your wheels to pot-holes and chippings, you enter somewhere else, somewhere a little less polished – and Scotland need to be ready for this.

Scottish independence is a Scottish matter. It has implications for the rest of Britain, but morally it is not England’s, Northern Ireland’s or Wales’ problem to deal with. If the United Kingdom is to be a truly happy union, then man, wife and child need to have their opinions heard. England cannot gesticulate at the top of the stairs shouting “not in my house” and murmur “after all I’ve done to support you”. Times change, people change and relationships must change with them. Besides, just because they break up doesn’t mean they are going anywhere. They are land masses after all. Perhaps the demise of Great Britain could instigate the beginning of something new for our fair isles, Republic of Ireland included. Then again, we could just all be happy members of the European Union. Oh dear, imagine Westminster being informed that its referendum on European membership was a European matter.

• Barra Collins is an Irish actor and theatre maker who produces under the name LAStheatre. Most recently Barra created and directed Deadinburgh, which ran at Summerhall in Edinburgh