Writer Fintan O’Toole told an Edinburgh audience that Ireland’s experience of independence held lessons for both sides of the debate in Scotland following last year’s referendum and amid speculation about another.
Delivering the Arbuthnott Lecture at Edinburgh University, he said Ireland before and after independence in 1922 had shown “surprising continuities”. Almost the entire UK civil service in pre-independence Ireland had simply transferred over to the new Irish Civil Service, he said. The economic relationship between Ireland and the UK continued largely unchanged for many years and levels of emigration remained high.
Mr O’Toole said there were obviously huge differences in the circumstances which led to Irish independence, but there may nevertheless be lessons.
“For those who are deeply opposed to Scottish independence, they’re often opposed on the basis that independence implies a fundamental breach with the past. The Irish case means that even in circumstances where the breach is violent and comes on top of many centuries of deep-rooted bitterness, a lot of stuff stays the same, a lot of things about people’s lives do not change, a lot of the institutions stay pretty much as they were.
“Ireland in very fundamental ways has remained British – not in political terms or its attitudes but in its skeletal structures.
“When we talk about independence and its meaning for people in their own lives, it doesn’t mean a great deal for very large numbers of people.”
He said it had taken about 50 years for large-scale change in economic patterns to take place. “For the Yes side, Irish experience tells us independence may not be what you think it is. The notion that independence itself is transformative is challenged by Irish experience.
“The lesson is not a conservative lesson that ‘nothing ever changes so don’t bother’.
“What I’m suggesting is we have to think of independence as one moment in a process rather than as itself a transformational experience.
“You need to know what you want independence for because otherwise it won’t make as much difference as you think.”
Mr O’Toole said Scotland was unusual in holding a vote on independence against a backdrop which was not full of conflict and violence.
“I think the close nature of the debate is a function of how little violence there has been. Very few nations have ever been in the position where you could manage that division yourselves. It would be up to Scotland to deal with that division.”
But he added: “The corollary of that is the obligation to manage it is very high. You would have been dealt in historical terms an incredibly good hand and if you lose the game on that hand it would be shameful. You could lose the game by not being consensual.”