Scottish independence would only succeed in reawakening sectarian tensions far and wide
A pro-independence supporter holds a "Yes" flag as the campaign gathers momentum in Edinburgh Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images
"We all relate to England – whatever England is,” David Chillingworth, Episcopalian Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, told the Irish Times this week, “but we don’t relate to one another.” He was talking about how little contact or awareness there is between the Celtic nations. Yet if Scotland becomes independent, the implications for Wales and particularly Ireland – north and south – will be profound.
The bishop has an unusual take on this, for he was born in Dublin and served as a rector in Northern Ireland in Portadown during the period when it was notorious for sectarian violence over the Drumcree church parade. He carries an Irish passport and thinks of himself as Irish-British.
I am also Dublin-born and wear that same label, but unlike the poor bishop in Scotland, no one in England, where I live, wants to take my Britishness away from me. I can confirm that he is absolutely right about the normal indifference of the Celtic nations to each other. These days Scots, however, would do well to learn from the example of the island immediately to their west.
There, the people of the Republic of Ireland have mostly ignored the rest of the Celtic fringe, being obsessed instead with nurturing old grievances towards England (aka the Saxon, perfidious Albion, the old enemy and so on). Anti-Englishness was our identity: the evil country’s role was to take the blame for all our wrongs and accept our immigrants uncomplainingly. Ireland was thus a mean little country that I gladly quit in the Sixties – insular, sectarian and with a political class that allowed itself to be bossed about by a rigid and intolerant Roman Catholic hierarchy and drove out most of its writers and creative minds along with the jobless.
Such narrow-mindedness is a grim warning of what might await an independent Scotland.
In Ireland’s case, the narrowing stemmed from a revolution in 1916 that began the process of taking Ireland out of the United Kingdom, cutting off contact with the British Empire, silencing anyone who retained unionist sympathies and airbrushing out of history the 200,000 or so Irishmen who fought in the First World War. If they chose to stay, Protestants kept their heads down and said nothing about “Rome Rule”.
In 1947, the horizons were trimmed even further when, on a whim, Ireland left the Commonwealth. The major contact with the world beyond were the letters and remittances from England or America, the instructions from Rome and the fundraising pleas from nuns and priests on the African missions.
Many might argue that it has been bad for Britain, but it was the EU that saved Ireland from itself, opening up a wider world, forcing it to relax some of its most restrictive laws and teaching it how to work harmoniously with its British neighbours, with whom ultimately its governments would work to sort out the joint problem of Northern Ireland, which Ireland had coveted but didn’t realise it didn’t want.
For much of the 20th century, in its constitution Ireland claimed ownership of the entire island, ballads were sung about our divided nation and there was hero-worship of various members of the IRA who tried to bring about Irish unity by crossing the border and attacking police. This kind of aggressive, divisive republicanism should serve as another warning to Scotland. There will be a push to undermine institutions with unionist associations, and to foment a kind of class war. If the Scots Nationalists win next Thursday, how long will it be before they morph into republicans and call for a referendum on ditching the monarchy? Not in the lifetime of the Queen, perhaps, but the current Prince of Wales would have to be on his guard.
Not that, if Scotland does vote “Yes”, everybody south of the border will mourn. Rump Britain will bubble with rage at the perceived ungratefulness of its Scottish neighbours, a rage that over time, will cool and stiffen. This, at least, is what has happened in Ireland, where, these days, most southerners just want to be able to forget about Northern Ireland. There is no appetite whatsoever for importing into their body politic those they privately call “Nordies”. In Scotland, those contemplating voting “Yes” in the hope that if anything goes wrong, they will be welcomed back into a comforting British embrace, might be in for an unpleasant surprise. Like a spurned but resilient lover, Britain will move from grief to anger and then, hard of heart and without looking back, move on.
If Northern Irish sectarianism had sprung from the dispossession of Catholics by 17th-century Protestant planters, Scottish sectarianism came from too large and fast an influx of Irish Catholics in the 19th century. In Glasgow, the Northern Irish Troubles added an extra dimension to the hatred between the football clubs Celtic (supported by pro-republican Catholics) and Rangers (unionist Protestants). Such hatred has diminished with prosperity and with relative calmness in Northern Ireland, but there are many Scots who are terrified that independence will exacerbate old tribal resentments. An Orange order parade in favour of “No” is due to take place on Saturday in Edinburgh. It may well be counterproductive, especially if some of their less disciplined members fall out with nasty elements of the “Yes” campaign.
Leaders on both sides have called for calm.
And though no Scots or Irish pay any attention to Wales other than on the rugby field, we will see further confusion there, regardless of whether Scotland gets independence or “devo-max”. Wales, though in favour of the Union, is leaping on the bandwagon to demand a greater measure of home rule – this at a time when the manifest failings of the Northern Irish government is showing just how complex such a balance is to strike.
So the unsettling influence of the Scottish vote on the Union is clear far beyond Scotland’s borders. In the final days before the referendum – as we think of ever more horrifying implications and uncertainties – I wonder how they’re feeling at the secretariat of an obscure body called the British-Irish Council.
stablished as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it consists of representatives from the governments of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the UK, from the Northern Irish Executive as well as from the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey. It holds two summits a year that the media ignore.
Should Scotland vote “Yes”, I’d suggest to Alex Salmond that he doesn’t turn up to the next meeting. The other participants might well discover a way of relating to each other by turning on a new enemy, one that wrecked a Union that suited everyone else.
Above all, in the Republic of Ireland, there is much unease in the corridors of power at the prospect of an independent Scotland destabilising Northern Ireland. Loyalists are already worked up because they reckon restrictions on flying the Union Flag and on Orange parades are an attack on their identity and their culture. What effect will it have on them when skilful Sinn Fein opportunists begin predicting that the break-up of the United Kingdom is nigh, and demanding an immediate referendum on a united Ireland?