Tom Peterkin: Irish eyes smiled on Sturgeon but life is more complex

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Irish politicians may have backed Scottish independence but it is not that simple for the First Minister, writes Tom Peterkin

The First Minister’s appearance as the first serving head of a foreign government in front of Ireland’s Seanad was a bit of a love-in.

Had a stranger from a distant land dropped into the session unaware of the close and enduring bonds between Scotland and Ireland, they would certainly have been very much the wiser after their visit.

Gaelic rang out across the chamber as Irish politicians spoke of the close cultural and linguistic ties between the two nations.

Sturgeon did her bit by quoting the Scottish Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean’s account of the Celtic bonds across the Irish Sea.

Though the First Minister stuck to the English translation when she recalled MacLean’s description of “the humanity that the oceans could not break – that a thousand years has not severed”.

Her charm offensive also included a reference to the Book of Kells, the ancient illuminated manuscript thought to have been created in Iona before making Ireland its permanent home.

According to Sturgeon, seeing the masterpiece for the first time on her Irish trip had been a “truly moving reminder of just how deeply and inextricably linked the peoples and culture of Ireland and Scotland have always been”.

These links were in turn celebrated by Irish politicians, with some keen to emphasise more modern common ground. For example, Rose Conway-Walsh of Sinn Fein was keen to highlight the contribution of two Scottish “iconic revolutionaries” to the Easter Rising of 100-years ago. She was referring to James Connolly, the Edinburgh-born socialist who was executed for helping lead the Rising, and Margaret Skinnider, the teacher turned sniper from Coatbridge who opened fire on British soldiers after travelling to Dublin to take part in the rebellion of 1916.

Of course, harking back to a bloody rebellion that was the prelude to a civil war and which strengthened the role of the gun in Irish politics is not always a comfortable fit with the sort of civic nationalism which the SNP claims to be a paragon of.

Comparing the Scottish situation with the Ireland of the early part of the 20th century was more Alex Salmond’s style than Nicola Sturgeon’s. It was not so long ago that Salmond borrowed from WB Yeats’ famous poetic homage to the rising “Easter 1916” to describe the situation Scotland finds itself in.

In his November 2014 resignation speech Salmond said Scotland had “changed utterly”. The phrase was interpreted as the departing first minister saying that independence would eventually come, despite the No vote.

A couple of years before that, Salmond used a visit to Dublin to draw a parallel between Ireland before it became independent in 1921 and the “bullying” he claimed Scotland was receiving at the hands of Westminster politicians.

His remarks did not go down well in Northern Ireland, where figures on both sides of the political divide criticised Salmond. It was the veteran moderate nationalist Seamus Mallon who said British/Irish relations were a great deal more complex than Salmond appeared to suggest. Mallon pointed out that many Scots were members of the Black and Tans, the violent British militia sent to Ireland after the First World War to suppress the struggle for independence.

Much sweeter music to Sturgeon’s ears than Conway-Walsh’s republican reflections on a troubled past would have been the wholehearted and passionate endorsement of her battle for Scottish independence that came from senators from a variety of parties and none.

Referring to the independence vote, Catherine Ardagh of Fianna Fail said: “While it was not to be in 2014, Scotland’s day will come.”

And Michael MacDowell, the former deputy prime minister of Ireland, said: “I wholly and unambiguously support Scotland’s movement for national independence.

“Many people have queried the value of independence. For this country, independence has been a remarkably transforming thing. I have no doubt that the genius of the Scottish people – once released through full independence – will achieve the same for Scotland.”

But as the praise rang out across Leinster House, Sturgeon’s critics claimed the First Minister was only using her visit to drum up support for Scottish independence.

It will not be lost on the First Minister that beyond the independence rhetoric there was little support for her other option of protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU within the UK.

Ireland’s foreign minister Charlie Flanagan shied away from endorsing that option and restricted 
himself to talking about being “helpful and constructive towards issues relating to Scotland”. The former Taoiseach John Bruton was more blunt. He described the possibility of Scotland staying in the single market if the UK as a whole leaves as technically, administratively and politically nearly impossible.

That would appear to leave independence as Sturgeon’s best Brexit option. But with a YouGov poll yesterday putting support for a Yes vote at just 44 per cent, the difficulty for the First Minister is that support for Scottish independence at home does not match the enthusiasm for it in the Irish Seanad.