A ‘Dalriada Federation’ – An Irishman’s Diary on a marriage of convenience between Ireland and Scotland
Current political blather about the possibility, even the likelihood, of a united Ireland – not least by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams – has prompted me to ask whether we should reframe the issue in a way that might even achieve a genuinely broad consensus both sides of the border.
As an old fan of 1066 and All That, I recall with some pride its discussion of Home Rule and especially the line about how William Gladstone “spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question.” In the context of Brexit, that’s what we need to do again – but this time quite openly.
Having recently travelled though Northern Ireland from Derrygonnelly in west Fermanagh to Ballycastle in north Antrim, what I remember most are the “flegs”, in northern parlance. The notion that any of these loyalist areas flying Union Jacks would willingly accept the result of a border poll with a narrow majority in favour of a united Ireland is deluded.
Despite the DUP’s pro-Brexit stance, a majority of Northern Ireland’s electorate voted to remain in the EU.
Scotland voted even more decisively to remain in the EU, only to be overwhelmed by the pro-Brexit result in England and Wales, just as I had feared in the final days before the referendum.
For Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, the outcome provided a fresh impetus for another referendum on independence for Scotland so that it could remain in the EU. And while she has since pulled back, it is now likely that such a referendum will be held in the aftermath of a bad Brexit deal.
Ireland has long-established links with Scotland. We are both self-consciously Celtic nations and were even partly joined together in the early Middle Ages by a kingdom known as Dalriada, which embraced Antrim, Argyll and the Western Isles. Until the 12th century, indeed, we Irish were called Scoti.
The Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, famously defeated England’s army at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. His brother Edward was then invited to become king of Ireland, with the ultimate aim of establishing a united kingdom of Scotland and Ireland to resist English expansionism.
This didn’t work out very well for us or for him, as he was slain at the battle of Faughart in 1318.
Ironically, after the Flight of the Earls nearly three centuries later, England’s first Stuart king – James I – settled loyal Lowland Scots in the Plantation of Ulster, and we’re still living with its consequences.
But if you arrive from the Highlands at Queen Street station in Glasgow, the bilingual signs identify it, in Scots Gaelic, as Sráid na Banrighinn – practically the same as it would be in Irish: Sráid na Banríona. And everywhere now, even in colonial Edinburgh, the Scottish Saltire flag is flown.
As a McDonald, I was always aware that it’s a Scottish name and still remember the stark black-and-white BBC “docudrama” Culloden, on the bloody battle in 1745 when, as it noted, every male member of the McDonald clan turned out to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie and for Scotland.
There is also much in Scotland that Northern Ireland unionists can identify with, such as the pre-eminence of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian. By far the largest Orange parade after Belfast’s takes place on the Twelfth of July every year in Glasgow, with equivalent enthusiasm.
Many Scots also have Irish roots, thanks to emigrants from the west of Ireland from the mid-19th century onwards, who went there often to pick potatoes (“tattie-hokers”, as they were called) or to take up unskilled jobs in Glasgow or the booming ship-building industry along the River Clyde.
Given all of these links, what I propose is a marriage of convenience between Ireland and Scotland, which could even be called the Dalriada Federation. In that way, based on the East German precedent, Scotland and Northern Ireland could remain in the EU, even if England and Wales were to leave.
Each of the three confederal elements could retain their own parliament and government, with representatives meeting every year (or as required) to discuss common issues, perhaps even on the island of Iona, which is our common spiritual home in many ways, and possibly alternating with Armagh.
My point is that we need to think outside the box about Irish unity instead of imagining that it’s going to happen, willy-nilly.
If it’s to be achieved at all, it will need a whole range of reassurances that everyone’s identity would be protected. I can think of no better way of realising that than through Dalriada.