What would Scottish independence mean for Ireland?

Published: 8 September 2014

Michael Keating discusses how Scottish independence would affect politics in both parts of Ireland. This article originally appeared on TheJournal.ie

There has been little connection between the Scottish and Irish national questions since the nineteenth century. While there were some individual contacts, Scottish nationalism was often seen as a Protestant-influence movement, with little appeal to the Irish Catholic community. This factor has disappeared in recent decades and during the Celtic Tiger years Ireland was included in the Scottish National Party’s ‘arc of prosperity’ of small successful northern European states. Since the economic crisis broke, it has been quietly omitted. Northern Ireland was seen as an example to be avoided and since the Troubles erupted in the early 1960s all parties in Scotland have striven to prevent them spilling over into the Catholic and Protestant communities of Scotland. British constitutional strategy has separated the two issues, notably in John Major’s declaration that the UK had no selfish economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland. It was pure coincidence that devolution was restored to Northern Ireland in 1997-9 along with Scotland.

Scottish independence would nevertheless affect politics in both parts of Ireland. Ireland could be expected to welcome Scotland into the European Union, given the trade and social links between the countries and its support for the principle of self-determination. There would be numerous opportunities for alliances between Ireland and Scotland and Scotland could learn from the Irish how to operate as a small member state. The unionist side in the Scottish independence debate has suggested that, if Scotland were let into the EU, it would have to join the Schengen free-travel zone, thus leaving the UK-Ireland Common Travel Area and putting up border posts with England. They do not seem to have asked the Irish (as equal partners in the CTA) what they thought about the matter or whether they would want to introduce border controls.

There is considerable concern in Northern Ireland about the implications of Scottish independence. Unionists recall that the Union of 1800 was with Great Britain, not England, and ask what the new union would actually be. Like many in Wales, they fear that the new United Kingdom would be even more unbalanced if the strongest of its devolved nations were to go, so reinforcing the dominance of London. The unionist community has two points of reference. One is to the Crown based in London; the other is to their kith and kin in western Scotland, and shared cultural and religious conditions. The Protestant working class community is already feeling marginalized. While the settlement has in effect guaranteed the union, they feel like losers in economic and social matters and the secession of Scotland could leave them feeling more isolated. Northern Ireland Catholics also have family links to Scotland but these are unlikely to be much affected.

Mainstream politicians in Scotland continue to sideline the Irish question and avoid mixing the issues. The Orange Order in Scotland is a staunch and vocal opponent of independence but has been ostracized by the official No campaign. The Yes side presents modern Scotland as a plural and multicultural community, in which sectarian politics has no place. The west of Scotland and the north of Ireland were for centuries one cultural and social space, with only a few miles of sea between them. This is no longer so and Irish considerations have played almost no role in the current Scottish independence debate.

Yet what the Irish like to call ‘the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands’ could be a way of facing up to a modern world in which traditional ideas of sovereignty are increasingly irrelevant and new forms of national accommodation are needed. Neither side in Scotland is offering statehood in the traditional sense, however much they pretend otherwise. The Yes side proposes keeping five of the six unions (political, currency, monarchical, defence, European and social) that Scotland currently enjoys. The No side proposes more devolution. Somewhere in between are the majority of Scots, who do not accept the sharp binary distinction and want to explore new models of statehood.  Both sides accept the European framework (such a consensus does not exist in England). Whoever wins, we might see Ireland brought back into the picture as part of a broader framework for what some of us have called a post-sovereign political order in which multiple political identities can co-exist without each having to have its own exclusive state.

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Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Academy of Social Sciences and the European Academy. He has taught at universities in Scotland, England, Canada, Italy, France and Spain. Currently, he is director of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change, a major programme examining the referendum in Scotland.

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