Categorized | Europe, UK News, World

Scottish Independence: The Perspective from Northern Ireland

Image courtesy of lism

Image by lism

On the 18th of September 2014, 84.59% of the registered Scottish public exercised their right to express their opinion through the ballot box. 55% voted ‘No’ to independence while 45% voted ‘Yes’. Although the result was decisive, it was not a landslide victory for the status quo, with 1, 617, 989 Scots voting in favour of becoming an independent nation. The referendum may be in the past but the topic has not disappeared from the agendas of many Scots as seen with the Scottish National Party’s unprecedented election success in the 2015 UK general election when it took 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. While this debate may not be relived for another decade or more, the political future of the United Kingdom remains in the mix, and not only does this have repercussions for Scotland but also has implications for the devolved region of Northern Ireland.

Scottish independence would likely have resulted in a whiplash effect in Northern Ireland (NI). Scotland and Ulster have strong cultural and historical ties despite being separated by the Irish Sea. For example, Catholic Irish emigrants formed the Glasgow Celtic Football Club in the 1840s while Rangers has always been perceived as a Protestant equivalent. Both these teams have strong fan bases in Northern Ireland, with many supporters regularly travelling to Scotland to support their matches.

It fascinated me whether the people in NI had formed opinions on the outcome of the referendum and what advice they would have for Scottish voters. In the midst of the build up to the Scottish Referendum I went to the streets of West Belfast to gauge popular opinion regarding the pressing issue facing the Scottish public.

I was intrigued about the consequences that a potential Scottish exit of the Union would have on those from the pro Union (Loyalist) and the anti-Union (Republican) factions of the population. To obtain such a stark contrast of views in Northern Ireland, there is perhaps nowhere better to go than the famous Shankill and Falls roads which are just 500 meters apart.

Despite approaching many people, who voiced their opinions in full, many conversations stopped as soon as they began when my microphone and camera were spotted. “You can’t have me on that”,”Get that away from me”,  “sorry I’m ex-military” were just some of the get-out clauses people threw at me. However it was soon clear that the places to get people talking were the well-populated watering holes. Questions such as “Do you want Scotland to go independent?”, “Will it affect Northern Ireland?”, and “Do you think it will happen?” prompted spirited, if unsurprising responses.

Scottish independence would have had a kinetic impact on Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement and the future of the nation in general. The Economist aptly wrote: “The greatest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom now comes from outside Ireland rather than within it.” If Scotland had gone independent, old fears and ambitions would have emerged for both Irish Republicans and British Unionists. Independence could have destabilised Northern Ireland’s political institutions that have made progress since the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Unionists could have gone through an identity crisis, as Scotland is an integral part of the Union to which they belong while it could also have reinforced nationalist demands for a referendum on a united Ireland, which is legally restricted to taking place no more than once every seven years since the 1998 peace deal.

With the Orange Order taking part in a parade in Glasgow less than a week before the referendum in support of the union, Gerry Adams president of Sinn Fein conjectured that the United Kingdom could be “unravelled” by the referendum’s outcome.

Had Scotland chosen to leave the Union, where would the Ulster Scots who arrived on Irish soil in the 17th century have stood as they adamantly voice, protest and march for the preservation of the Union flag and the United Kingdom in general? What would Scottish independence have meant for the Glaswegian Orange Order, and those who subscribe and align themselves to the Scots way of life in preference to the English? This “anti-England” sentiment is common throughout the devolved nations and is clearly manifest in the world of Sport, with David Healy’s notorious goal in 2005 against England embedded on the walls of East Belfast in a peaceful sporting mural rather than the paramilitary murals of the past. 

Scottish independence may well have revitalised much of the rhetoric evident during the Troubles. Republicans would likely have questioned whether the North of Ireland is a sustainable entity, raising fresh questions about the Good Friday Agreement, and potentially leading to political instability, disunity and a resurgence of dissident activity from both sides of the community.

In light of the possible collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly following the Ulster Unionist Party’s exit from the executive due to the alleged involvement of the IRA in the death of Kevin McGuigan many tensions clearly still lie dormant below the surface. An independent Scotland might well have exacerbated these fault lines. The BBC recently reported that 94 guns have been found in Northern Ireland in the last three years. This is clearly a violation of the 1998 decommissioning of fighting groups under the Belfast Agreement and highlights the tentative nature of the peace roots that have been established.

Interestingly, the majority of those interviewed on the Loyalist Shankill Road, argued that “I wouldn’t vote yes”, “they should remain in the UK” and “I hope they stay British.” While the typically Republican Falls Road tangent was that “Scotland has the right to go independent”,”you can’t stop the onward march of a nation” along with the predictable “we should have our own independence” (in reference to Ireland).

Although the answers I received were unsurprising it was a stark reminder that matters in Scotland would have consequences in Northern Ireland. Scotland’s exit from the Union could have given loyalists cause to be concerned, potentially leading to them expressing their insecurities even more prolifically and vocally, while the nationalist cause to cut ties with England could have led to a resurgence of violent activity on both sides of the border. Such tensions and aggression would have been far from progressive or positive.

Further, the Union Flag may have been subject to scrutiny and revision as it currently combines elements of the national flags of England, Scotland and Ireland. A change in flag would have symbolised a change in identity for many Northern Irish. Without the blue St Andrew’s Cross, loyalists fighting their cultural war in upholding their Britishness would have experienced trauma. The 2012 Flag protests around Belfast City Hall after the self subscribed ‘non sectarian’ Alliance Party compromised on permitting the Union Flag from flying atop the building only on designated calendar days, attests to the meaning loyalists ascribe to this symbol. 

Such issues are mere speculation post referendum. Many Northern Irish breathed a sigh of relief at the result due to a fear of the repercussions that would have been felt in Northern Ireland. As the current political crisis in Stormont over the Provisional IRA’s existence highlights, the past is still a present day reality. The current instability of institutions would have been exacerbated had Scotland chosen to leave the United Kingdom in 2014. If and when Scottish nationalists re-launch their bid for independence in the future, Northern Ireland will have to be prepared for a potentially different outcome. This issue would need to be dealt with soberly and methodically with dialogue on both sides of the divide so that the likely effects of Scottish independence on Northern Ireland’s political institutions and social stability might be more carefully considered.

Image courtesy of lism

Robert Sellar

About Robert Sellar

Robert is currently finishing up his Masters in Terrorism and Political Violence at Georgetown University on exchange from the University of St Andrews, where he obtained his undergraduate in International Relations. He grew up in Dublin and moved to Belfast when he was a teenager, and so can be British or Irish on demand. He has spent time in Africa and is interested in international security, law and humanitarian issues that affect our world today.

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