Scottish Independence and Northern Ireland

Whatever the outcome on the 18th September, the referendum on Scottish independence will have a profound effect on the future of the UK whatever size and shape that may be. No more so than in Northern Ireland, one area of the UK which has remained strikingly absent from the debate on independence. And one it may be wise for those both sides of the referendum debate to pay slightly more attention too.

Protestants in the north of Ireland have long celebrated their links with Scotland. Scotland is more than just a neighbour to Northern Ireland. Just 20 miles away, and visible from each other’s coastlines, the history, culture and language of the two are intertwined more so than that of Northern Ireland and England. The plantation of Ulster was demographically more of a Scottish colony than an English one, and many in Ulster can trace their roots to Scotland via migration in the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed it’s fairly safe to say most people in Northern Ireland feel much closer to Scotland than they do to England.

Scottish independence would leave a very peculiar UK, a much larger England (geographically, economically and politically) with two much small provinces. The first minister of Wales has warned that radical changes would have to be made to prevent England dominating a new United Kingdom. By voting for independence Scotland would force the rest of the UK to reassess their constitutional relationship. Nowhere more so then between Northern Ireland and England. The departure of Scotland would leave Northern Ireland even more cut off from the rest of the UK.

As Mike Nesbitt, current leader of the Ulster Unionist Party said, “Whatever the result, there will be some form of recalibration of the union”. The effects this will have on the ground in Northern Ireland remains the great unknown. No matter what the outcome, the exact balance of political power within the UK will have permantly shifted.

Any changes could upset an already fragile peace between radical sides of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland. Within some sections of the community, on both sides, frustration with the Good Friday Agreement runs deep. Unionists, in particular, are wary of any change to the UK’s constitutional status quo. Protestants are no longer an absolute majority in Northern Ireland. And even though opinion polls suggest that as many as half of Catholics now support staying in the union, unionism in Northern Ireland is struggling to articulate a coherent identity. Working class loyalists who recently, night after night for more than a month fought with police, complaining their culture was being eroded and that their communities were losing out under the terms of the peace deal.

While on the other side of the political divide some have warned that Scottish independence could revive Irish nationalist hopes of a united Ireland. Boosting support for Irish militants, who have been largely silent since a 1998 peace deal, and raising the spectre of retaliation from pro-British militants. The persistence of armed splinter groups like the Real IRA suggests a hard-core of republican activists are angry at Sinn Fein’s drift into the mainstream.

However Sinn Fein may have little to gain from renewed calls for union with the Republic of Ireland. It is unlikely any referendum on the North joining the Republic would turn out in their favour, and in the short term would almost certainly lead to more violence and instability.

Whatever the outcome on the 18th September, politicians both north and south, east and west should pay close attention to events in Northern Ireland, and do as much as they can to defuse any potential crisis, or calls to undo the progress of the past ten years. As Crispin Black said, Scottish independence may answer the West Lothian Question, but it’s going to pose a much greater and more complicated one for the – the West Belfast question.