Peter Jones: Scotland’s politics are turning Irish

After IndyRef, what else can the past of Ireland teach us when it comes to shaping our own future, asks Peter Jones
The Irish civil war of 1922-23 birthed Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, "which have often been hard to tell apart". Picture: GettyThe Irish civil war of 1922-23 birthed Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, "which have often been hard to tell apart". Picture: Getty
The Irish civil war of 1922-23 birthed Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, "which have often been hard to tell apart". Picture: Getty

For too long, Scotland has cordially ignored the lessons of Irish politics. We have kept the politics at a distance either because it is impenetrably difficult to understand or because of a fear that the divisions, especially those which caused Ulster’s bombings and bloodshed, are too toxic.

But now would be a good time to start inquiring and learning, for there are signs that Scottish politics is turning Irish. It is increasingly obvious that the major political dividing line in modern Scottish politics is no longer between left and right but between Yes and No. Where someone chose to put their cross in those two boxes on the ballot paper on 18 September, 2014 has become a more important definition of their political attitude than anything else.

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Nationalism, national questions, and attitudes to nation were the key matters dominating Irish politics, both in the north and the south of Ireland, for much of the 20th century. Their significance has diminished a little with the ending of the Ulster conflict but they still do play an important role.

In Ulster, the nationalist dividing line is fairly obvious. On one side are people variously described as republican or nationalist and generally associated with people of the Catholic faith. Their basic nationalist belief is that Ulster should be part of the Republic of Ireland, thus creating, geographically at least, a united Ireland.

On the other side are people labelled as unionist and monarchist and generally seen as Protestant. Their nationalism is a belief that remaining politically a part of the United Kingdom in order to stay British rather than becoming Irish is infinitely preferable.

After a quarter century of heinous murders, and a longer pre-history of Protestant unionist oppression of a Catholic republican minority, there is now acceptance on all sides that complete repudiation of violence in favour of power-sharing between the divided polities, with any decision on a changed constitutional future reserved to a referendum, is the only way forward.

I sometimes wonder whether David Cameron, when he was faced with a majority SNP government with a manifesto commitment to an independence referendum, received civil service advice pointing out the Ulster lesson of where refusal to recognise legitimate democratic demands can lead.

Even if there was no advice set out in a civil service memo, every British politician must surely be aware of this domestic lesson of the utter folly of trying to suppress political aspirations instead of fully exposing them to democratic debate and decision. If we accept that, then Ireland has already had an enormous impact on Scottish politics.

The question now is: what more can be learned from Ireland’s past for the benefit of Scotland’s future?

One is already upon us. It is that a minority of the population which has a passionate belief will continue to press that belief even when it has been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are a minority and that a majority rejects their passion. The Yes people, the 45 per cent who backed independence, think, like their leader Nicola Sturgeon, that independence is “inevitable”.

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This surely means that the 55 per cent who voted No will come to recognise the error of their ways and will understand that the way ahead to much greater prosperity and equality for all Scots is the way of independence. The only question to be resolved is whether this realisation will dawn sooner or later, implying that the SNP, like the Mormons, will never leave off pressing our doorbells.

The parallel with Irish politics is this time with the south. In the Irish Republic, two main parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – have been the lead political players. They are both centre-right parties which have often been hard to tell apart in economic and social policy terms.

The most telling and enduring difference stems from their history stemming from the 1922-23 civil war between factions opposing and supporting the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty which created the present independent Eire. The civil war is irrelevant to the modern Scottish condition; the fact that this is what has distinguished Fianna Fáil (“Warriors of Destiny”, rooted in rejection of the Treaty) from Fine Gael (“Clan of the Irish People”, based on acceptance of the Treaty) is what matters.

Both supported finishing the unfinished business of independence – the uniting of Ireland – but differed, or were perceived by their supporters to differ, on the means whereby that would be achieved.

The precise nature of the difference is not important; what matters is that these two parties have managed to sustain their separate existences for close to a century over, what are to outsiders, virtually identical shades of grey in the spectrum of Irish nationalism.

Only with the advent of a power-sharing political agreement in the north and the abandonment by the Irish government, with the support of overwhelming opinion, of the clause in the Irish constitution laying claim to the six Ulster counties, have these shades begun to melt and dissolve.

So one clear lesson from Ireland is that political division over constitutional matters can prove incredibly enduring. Perhaps nationalists have learned that quickly – and believe that if they keep banging that drum loudly enough, unionists will join them in the hope of a bit of peace.

There is also an Irish lesson for nationalists – that the potential for disagreements over the processes for achieving independence and the nature of that independence is enormous. Moreover, these disagreements can turn into long-lasting schisms.

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But by far the most profound lesson, and hardest question, faces unionists. Is this Yes-No divide in Scottish politics the deepest division? And if it is, should unionists re-think political geometry on the No side?

The hard reality is that, divided between Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat camps, none have any hope of winning power at Holyrood in the foreseeable future.

Should they recognise that, dissolve themselves, and form a new anti-nationalist, pro-union party which might command 55 per cent support?

It’s very hard to foresee that happening. But Scottish nationalism is a broad church and perhaps Scottish unionism needs to be equally broad if it is to withstand the “inevitable”.