Scottish Independence Debate: and what about Northern Ireland?

Catherine Maguire 17 September 2014

Just days before the fate of the United Kingdom is to be decided at the Scottish independence referendum, cautious whispers are drifting in political circles. Not in Scotland, nor in Westminster; but in that small, often problematic, and downright baffling patch of land across the Irish Sea. 

The relationship between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland is at best tense, and at worst virulently bitter. We’re the naughty relation, the roguish black-sheep cousins who couldn’t be trusted to govern themselves for more than thirty years because we were too busy blowing each other up. We came into existence almost one hundred years ago, and yet an imposing question mark still remains with regards to exactly who we are, or where we belong, a question mark placed under the spotlight by the possibility that the problematic Union may collapse. 

When the Anglo-Irish War between Irish Republican and British forces came to an end in 1922, Northern Ireland exercised its right to leave the fledgling Irish Free State. Six of the counties in the traditional province of Ulster – Fermanagh, Down, Derry/Londonderry, Armagh, Antrim and Tyrone – are constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, whilst the remaining 26 counties form part of what is now the Republic of Ireland. Since then, the province has lurched from tentative peace to civil war and back again, culminating in a thirty-year campaign of violence euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’, the effects of which are painfully visible on the political, economic and social landscape of the province to this day.  

The constitutional status of Northern Ireland is mired in difficulties. On the one hand, the majority of people living in Northern Ireland believe that the province is best served as part of the United Kingdom. On the other hand, opinion polls have consistently shown that many of those living in England and in the Republic of Ireland believe that Northern Ireland should be ceded to the Irish Republic. The gap between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the republican Sinn Féin is at its narrowest yet, suggesting that calls for a United Ireland have not been dampened. The impending Scottish referendum has led to an exacerbation of these conflicting ideals, with some political commentators suggesting that an independent Scotland could place the future of Northern Ireland in jeopardy. 

There is a deep and inextricable bond between Scotland and Northern Irish unionists, many of whom can trace their heritage to the Scottish settlers who were encouraged to inhabit the most rebellious corner of the island of Ireland in the seventeenth century. Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Ulster-Scots language was given "parity of esteem" with the Irish language. At their closest points, just 20 miles separate the two nations. Their symbolic intimacy, however, is palpable. Enter any unionist community in Northern Ireland, and you are likely to see the saltire fluttering from lampposts alongside loyalist flags. Just this week, thousands of Northern Ireland Orange Order members travelled to Edinburgh to march alongside their Scottish counterparts. If Scotland votes for independence, the Union as we know it will be irrevocably changed, and it is this prospect which proves a source of great fear for Unionists, who already fear the insidious erosion of what they deem to be their ‘Britishness’. Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Flag only on designated days led to widespread rioting and public disorder that lasted for almost two months back in 2012. Rulings by the province’s Parades Commission which restrict the areas in which loyalist bands can march lead to almost inevitable yearly rioting during the summer. 

A "yes" vote, on the other hand, will undoubtedly renew calls from nationalists for a referendum on whether Northern Ireland – or the North of Ireland – should reunite with the twenty-six counties of the Republic. Republicans such as Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, who declared that the Union is now "hanging by a thread" , will surely aim to exploit the independence of Scotland to their advantage. After all – if they can leave, why can’t we? Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a border poll on whether or not Northern Ireland should reunite with the Republic to form a constitutionally independent country can only take place with the consent of the majority of people both north and south of the border, at intervals of no fewer than seven years. A ‘yes’ vote could reignite nationalist ambitions among those who had resigned themselves to perpetual British-ness, fearing that it was futile to ever imagine a united Ireland. They would now need only to look at this newly-independent nation that had freed itself from the shackles of British colonialism. 

For all our apparent reticence in the independence debate, few will argue that Northern Ireland will be left unscathed by its outcome. A resounding ‘no’ will prove deeply disappointing to a significant republican minority, whose leading party has gained significant territory both north and south of the border. A ‘yes’ is an unthinkable eventuality for those who cling to the notion of an indivisible Union, and opens up the way for an escalation in violence. And in the most likely scenario – a narrow ‘no’ majority’ – the province is once again doomed to remain in a constitutional no-man’s land, with unionism and nationalism desperately defending their corner.