Ireland can adapt to either referendum result

Opinion: What Scottish nationalism is looking for is effectively dominion status

SNP leader Alex Salmond: will he see a new independent Scotland blooming or will caution dictate otherwise? Photograph: Getty

SNP leader Alex Salmond: will he see a new independent Scotland blooming or will caution dictate otherwise? Photograph: Getty

Wed, Jul 16, 2014, 01:00

There are not many countries where a referendum on the independence of a large part of the home territory could be held peacefully and by agreement between the main protagonists.

It is greatly to the credit of British and Scottish democracy that the Scottish electorate is being given the opportunity to decide whether to maintain or end the 300-year-old union.

A Yes vote would be followed by intensive negotiation between Edinburgh and London on the practical consequences of a new relationship, with parallel discussions on Scotland’s admission to the EU, UN and other international bodies, to be concluded prior to independence. A No vote would presumably prompt improvements to devolution promised by the Westminster parties.

What is less admirable about the debate has been the intrusion of world leaders, weighing in behind the No side. The most egregious example was that of European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, whose own country, Portugal, recovered its independence from Spain in 1640. He warned that Scotland’s admission to the EU could be extremely difficult, because it required unanimity among member states, even though there is no precedent for excluding any EU territory.

Prolonged veto

Scotland is not Kosovo, though: when EU member states facilitated the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, most did not worry too much about the prospect of five or six countries at the table. While Spain might hold up negotiations for a while, because of its concerns on Catalonia, a prolonged veto would be politically untenable.

Ireland’s experience reflects both sides of the argument. Unionists naturally support continuation of the union with Scotland, though sending Orange marchers across a few days before the vote is probably not a good idea.

First Minister Peter Robinson has made it clear that if Scotland voted Yes, Northern Ireland would remain in the UK with England and Wales. While it might lead to some rethinking of Ulster-Scots as a pillar of unionist identity, it is unlikely republicanism would gain new traction, despite any initial flurry of excitement.

Strict neutrality

Nationalist Ireland has until now maintained strict neutrality across the political spectrum, surprising though this might seem. Official Ireland has little enthusiasm for Scottish independence, attaching much more importance to the cordiality of British-Irish relations and the stability of the peace process; it also perhaps fears increased investment competition. In the light of our history, though, it would be incongruous to openly favour the status quo. To advocate publicly Scottish independence, on the other hand, could quite possibly damage that cause and create serious distrust in relations. In any case, the principled position is that it is for the Scottish people to decide.

A few years ago, in the heyday of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland was central to the Scottish independence debate. Since the crash, the SNP does not mention Ireland any more, preferring to point to Nordic models. That has the advantage of sparing us the disobliging and sometimes ill-informed ripostes of pro-union spokesmen.

Happily, Ireland is no longer relevant to the argument. In this decade of centenaries, leading British figures can safely express respect for the achievements of Irish independence, without fearing a read-across to Scotland.

In truth, despite significant similarities, there are also important differences between Ireland and Scotland, in geographical situation, in historical experience, and between the world of 100 years ago and today. While Scottish history has many sad, traumatic and heroic episodes, on balance it benefited from the union and from empire, as the Scottish diaspora spread. Scotland was better integrated than Ireland ever was.

There was not the same centrality to religion, after Scotland did not quite succeed in imposing Presbyterianism as the State religion across these islands in the mid-17th century. Today’s push for independence is not propelled either by cultural nationalism or unrealistic aspirations for economic self-sufficiency.

What Scottish nationalism is looking for, by retaining Queen Elizabeth as head of state, is dominion status, very different from militant Irish republican separatism. That ought to lead to an amicable relationship between Edinburgh and London from the start.

Potential damage

The potential damage to Britain’s standing from Scottish independence is exaggerated. The UK would still be a country of 50 million people and a nuclear power, and it is not easy to see how it could be ejected from an expanded permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

The core of the debate is economic, though such an important decision should concern more than marginal changes in living standards, whichever way the vote goes. The union of 1707 between elites was accompanied by a bailout, following disastrous speculation in the Darien project that promised untold riches.

What has to be weighed up today is an independent Scotland’s greater vulnerability to global economic storms versus its desire to run a more communitarian economic policy in reaction to the destructive effects of Thatcherism on its industrial base.

Opinion polls suggest that Scotland’s voters will play for safety rather than opt for a more challenging future, though, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, has noted, “the historically proven fact is that national statehood, once attained, is infectious and almost impossible to undo”. Ireland can surely work with either result. Martin Mansergh is a former Fianna Fáil TD and minister of state, and was centrally involved in negotiating the Northern peace process.

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