In Dublin earlier this week, I was struck by the marked contrast with Edinburgh. Both are capital cities and seats of government but only the Irish one has the full powers of a nation state, as opposed to the constraints imposed on Scotland’s devolved parliament.
However, the divide was most marked over the EU and it sets the tone for the economy and the tenor of wider political debate.
Across the Irish Sea, the EU flag flew proudly alongside the tricolour over government buildings with neither political angst nor any sign of it being lowered, while in Scotland a UK Cabinet Secretary demanded the EU flag be removed from Ministry of Defence properties.
The EU has not just driven Irish economic growth but altered their political orbit and even changed perceptions of themselves. In Scotland, Brexit is generating self-doubt and causing the country to look inward and backwards, as well as causing understandable fears for jobs and the economy.
Concern over Brexit exists in both but the actions about it are vastly different. There’s understandable anxiety in Ireland not just over the border issue but about its economic implications. However, the Republic stands steadfastly as a member of the EU 27, seated at the top table in discussions.
The border is a core issue for EU negotiators. But Brexit also provides opportunities for Ireland, although attempts to attract EU institutions to move there from the UK have so far been unsuccessful. A burgeoning financial sector is gaining as private business relocates.
The economy is performing remarkably well and there’s a sense of optimism abroad in the land. The wider political debate is about a modern Ireland as the country seeks to satisfy demands of a younger generation, yet retain respect for old orthodoxies and institutions. A referendum on abortion has just been set, following upon recent changes in marriage equality. All this under a Taoiseach who’s not only gay but from an Asian background. A far cry from the dour and devout days of Eamon De Valera, when many decried it as being almost akin to a theocracy. A sign, all the same though, of how far Ireland has come and the continuing strides it’s made since joining the EU. Confident in itself and forward looking.
In Scotland, by contrast, the fears of both business and politicians are significant but action is lacking. Despite voting convincingly against Brexit, it finds itself being removed from the EU all the same. Moreover, it has no seat at the negotiating table and there are, at best, doubts over existing devolved powers and, at worst, threats to them.
Even the Scottish Tories are seemingly incapable of exerting any influence on a divided and dysfunctional Cabinet in London. Any Brexit dividend for sectors such as the fishing industry, which voted heavily for Leave, is proving as illusory as the millions pledged for the health service.
The Scottish economy is sluggish despite the best efforts of Holyrood Government; our wider political debate is about flags and sectarianism. For sure, progress has been made on equality and even this week action has been taken on it in the boardroom, but it still looks like a country uncertain of what it is, never mind where it’s going; unsure of itself and backward looking.
As Scotland agonises over Brexit, Ireland has embraced the EU and benefited enormously from it. Begrudging claims that it was all down to EU handouts are untrue. For sure, they maximised the benefits that were available but the gains were far deeper and wider than that. Ireland seized the opportunity that the EU offered, not just economically but politically and even psychologically.
I’ve visited Ireland for many years and some of my earliest memories of the country as a child were fond, but also of a country much poorer than Scotland. Even visits in the mid-80s were to a land scarred by emigration and overshadowed by Britain. A political billboard then simply showed an Irish passport and the words “There has to be a better way.” Nothing else was needed to convey the message and the fears. A harsh lesson that independence carries risks and one that was learned the hard way.
READ MORE: Ruth Davidson: ‘There is life after Brexit’
But then all that changed. The Celtic Tiger may have crashed and burned but the Irish economy is moving fast once again and there’s optimism about the future.
Construction in Dublin was substantial and trade is now pan European and global, even if the UK remains the largest market. EU membership was pivotal. It offered access to a far larger market for the Irish economy but it also psychologically liberated them from the shadows of their larger neighbour. For while it won its liberty in 1922, it still circled in a UK orbit and even defined itself against Britain. Special ties to the USA and other lands there may have been but it was still across the Irish Sea that Ireland looked. The term ‘West Brit’ was an insult but the country was still subsumed in some ways within the former empire and focussed on it in so many others.
Joining the EU opened up new trading partners and it’s a European nation now. Britain, not just because of Northern Ireland, remains important but Ireland now operates on a global stage – part of the transformation that has seen it grow in confidence.
Enmity over past wrongs replaced by a competitive edge, its history proudly recalled but its future given greater importance, Ireland views itself as a European nation, not defining itself solely against its British past. Of course, other factors played a part, from the election of President Mary Robinson to the success of Jack Charlton’s football team. But the EU was, and remains, pivotal for them – and all that without Scotland’s advantages or the North Sea bounty.
For Scotland, the EU brought economic benefits but it never fully grasped the political opportunities and remains in the British orbit, going God knows where. It’s a tale of two cities, one that has embraced EU membership and is confident and flourishing, the other that is exiting it and is fearful and backward looking.