ALEX Salmond has sparked a furious row by comparing his bid for Scottish independence with Ireland’s violent struggle against British rule.
On a visit to Dublin, he drew a parallel between the Irish situation prior to its independence in 1921 and the “bullying” he claimed his government was experiencing at the hands of Westminster politicians.
In Ireland, politicians from both sides of the religious divide criticised his remarks, which were made before he met Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the yesterday’s British-Irish Council summit.
The political storm crossed the Irish Sea, where the First Minister’s opponents described his remarks as “incredible”.
In an Irish radio interview, Mr Salmond used colourful language to condemn David Cameron’s Westminster coalition for what he said was an attempt to “bully” the Scottish Government into holding a referendum earlier than his preferred date of autumn 2014.
But it was his apparent comparison of the SNP’s political battles over the referendum with the bloody conflicts that have characterised Ireland’s relationship with Britain that caused fury.
Mr Salmond told the Morning Show on Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE: “I am sure, as many people in Ireland will remember, that sometimes people in leadership positions in big countries find it very difficult not to bully small countries.
“Of course, what we have seen – as everybody knows – over the last week is the most extraordinary attempt to intimidate Scotland by Westminster politicians.”
Later in the interview, he made a similar remark, saying: “As again the people of Ireland will know, bullying and hectoring the Scottish people from London ain’t going to work.”
Mr Salmond’s comments were criticised by Lord Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist leader who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
Lord Trimble said Mr Salmond had been “playing to the gallery in spades”. He went on: “It is grandstanding on stilts. It is totally divorced from the reality. My understanding is that the government have been trying to get into a conversation with Mr Salmond for the past year, but he has been declining to talk to them.”
As one of the main architects of the Good Friday Agreement – the template for the settlement that has brought today’s peace to Northern Ireland – Lord Trimble took issue with Mr Salmond’s comparison of Scotland with Ireland.
He suggested that instead of the Good Friday deal being based on bullying, peace had resulted from the agreement of those on opposite sides. Lord Trimble said: “If he is talking to people here, thinking back to recent events… [and] the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement – that whole thing was based on the principle of consent.
“And we took great care to get everybody inside the tent and not to do anything without agreement. He is a little bit out of date in that respect.”
The First Minister also angered politicians on the other side of the political divide.
Seamus Mallon, a former leader of the moderate, mainly nationalist SDLP, suggested Mr Salmond should brush up on his history, saying many Scots were members of the Black and Tans, the notorious British militia that gained a reputation for violence in Ireland after the Great War.
Mr Mallon said: “Scotland was part of the bullying that took place in Ireland. People from Scotland were the cornerstone of the plantation of Ulster. I think Alex is a very able performer, but his knowledge of history is a little weak.
“As recently as 15 years ago, you had Scottish regiments here, enforcing the writ of Britain so, I think I could recommend a good history of Ireland for him.”
In his radio interview, Mr Salmond responded to suggestions by Chancellor George Osborne that an independent Scotland would have to leave the pound and join the euro.
“This is quite an interesting point,” he said. “George Osborne has been Chancellor for 18 or 20 months or so, but he seems to think that he now owns sterling.
“Actually, the Bank of England was founded by a Scot. There were Scottish bank notes before the Bank of England was founded, incidentally, before the Union of the Parliaments. But many countries as they become independent from London over the years have used sterling. Australia, for example, after it became independent used sterling. Westminster politicians are trying to make things as difficult and belligerent as possible.”
A few hours later, Mr Salmond presented a more conciliatory tone when he met Mr Clegg and Irish and Northern Irish political leaders at Dublin Castle.
The First Minister said he would be prepared to meet Mr Cameron in Edinburgh or London to try to make progress on holding a referendum.
At the end of a week that has seen the First Minister at loggerheads with Westminster after Mr Cameron’s attempt to bring forward the referendum, Mr Salmond said: “Once we’ve published the Scottish Government’s consultation document, I am very happy to meet the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister in Edinburgh, in London or wherever to talk through these things in a positive way.
“Far better, whatever our views on events of recent days, that we can come to a constructive dialogue. I think that’s what the people would expect and I think that can take us forward.
“Once we publish our proposals, perhaps some of the fears that people have will dissolve.”
Despite his change of tone, there was disquiet in Scotland about the impression he had made in his radio interview.
A Scottish Labour spokesman said: “This will raise a lot of eyebrows. There are very significant differences between the Ireland of 100 years ago and the devolved Scotland of today. Few people will see easy parallels.”
Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said: “This is not a valid comparison. Mr Salmond’s tendency towards hyperbole is getting out of hand. His attempts to portray a genuine and honest offer of assistance [on] the referendum as some sort of unjustified intervention is intemperate and it is dangerous. If anyone is becoming a bully, it is Alex Salmond himself.
“The attempts to make the situation comparable with Ireland is an example of the incredible levels to which he will go.”
Mr Clegg rejected Mr Salmond’s bullying claim, insisting the UK government respected Holyrood’s mandate to hold a referendum but was obliged to ensure it was done legally.
A spokesperson for the First Minister said: “Everyone knows that the Prime Minister and Chancellor were trying to bully Scotland into the terms of our own referendum, and the First Minister’s point is that they need to remember that the days of Westminster laying down the law to Scotland are over.
“The reality is the Prime Minister has been reluctant to engage with the Scottish Government, and he would be wise to accept the First Minister’s offer of getting round the table to resolve our differences.”