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What would a Scotland Yes mean to Northern Ireland?

Whether a Yes or No, the decision will cause waves across the Sea of Moyle.

Giant's Causeway. Flickr/Christolakis. Some rights reserved.

“We cherish the relationship that we have. Nowhere else in the UK would the bonds be more tightly drawn between any other part of the UK from Northern Ireland’s point of view than with Scotland”. So said Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Northern Ireland’s First Minister in 2012, as the political winds within the United Kingdom (UK) moved inexorably towards the announcement of Scotland’s independence referendum.

The links between Scotland and Ireland, and in particular the northern half of the island, go back into the mists of time. From the training of the legendary Ulster hero Cú Chulainn by Scáthach on the Western Isles, to the migration of the Gaelic tribes known to the Romans as the Scoti to Scotland and onwards through Saint Colmcille (also known as Saint Columba). The galloglasses from the Highlands and islands manned many of Ireland’s armies in the Middle Ages. Perhaps most significantly however were the Scots who formed the majority of the settlers during the Ulster Plantation in the early 17th century and whose descendants now form the vast majority of unionist voters in Northern Ireland.

The upcoming referendum on September 18th will undoubtedly affect the people of Northern Ireland in a number of ways. While a Yes vote would lead to the end of the UK as we know it, a No vote will also change the dynamic within the Union. The UK would then be faced with a Scotland moving towards even greater devolution, so called ‘devo-max’, and a possible impending referendum on the UK remaining within the European Union (EU).

An Independent Scotland

The likelihood of a yes vote in the upcoming referendum seems a long odds prospect, however, it is not beyond the realms of possibility and such a result would have profound effects on Northern Ireland in several areas.

Reg Empey the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has stated that if Scotland votes for independence he fears Northern Ireland could end up “like West Pakistan,” with “a foreign country on one side of us and a foreign country on the other side of us.” It is only 18 kilometres from the north coast of Antrim across the Sea of Moyle to Scotland, but an independent Scotland with different tax and business regulations, a new border agency and immigration laws and possible change in currency could place extra costs on businesses in Northern Ireland.

The Scottish National Party has made no secret of the fact that they intend to follow the lead of the Republic of Ireland and reduce corporation tax. Their initial target is to set the tax rate at 3% lower than the UK rate should the independence referendum pass. This would place Scotland’s corporation tax rate at a distinct advantage in comparison to Northern Ireland and would surely aid the Scottish government in their battle to attract employers to Scotland while still lagging behind the 12.5% rate in the Republic of Ireland. While some view such a move as the start of a race to the bottom by an independent Scotland, there can be little doubt but that such a policy has been an effective tool in luring foreign companies to the Republic of Ireland.

It would seem unlikely that the Common Travel Area (CTA) allowing the free movement of people without border restrictions that has existed between the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey would cease to exist if Scotland became independent. However, there have been suggestions that any new Scottish border and immigration agency would have a more liberal immigration policy. If this was to be the case the CTA might indeed come into question.

The financial structures of the new UK would also come into question. The Barnett Formula used by the authorities in London to allocate funds to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland would have to be recalibrated following Scottish independence.  Whilst it is quite plausible that the relative generosity of the UK Exchequer to the administrations in Belfast and Cardiff might continue, it seems equally likely that such an exercise might be used as a way to lessen the transfers to the two remaining smaller partners in the Union.

The constitutional position of Northern Ireland

Carl Bildt and Lord Robertson amongst others have voiced fears that a vote for independence could lead to the “Balkanization” of the UK and indeed across Europe. Prime in the thoughts of many exponents of this theory is the position of Northern Ireland. Gerry Adams the leader of Sinn Féin believes that “the union of the United Kingdom is hanging by a thread” and others on the republican and nationalist side have sought to use the impending referendum as ballast for their argument for the need for a ‘Border Poll’ on Irish unity. Other figures both in unionism and republicanism however do not see an independent Scotland leading to a questioning of the Northern Ireland's position in the union at this time.

In Northern Ireland, the residual effects of 30 years of violence, together with a folk history of conflict over centuries and recently and perhaps most importantly increased unemployment has led to an undercurrent of discontent. The recession and public sector cuts have hit the province harder than most in the UK given the huge percentage of the work force that rely on government jobs directly and indirectly in Northern Ireland. While the recent July 12th celebrations passed with relatively minor incidents, the flag protests of 2012 and 2013 and the arrest of Gerry Adams this year outline the sensitive situation there. Lord Trimble the former leader of the UUP announced recently that “the only thing that I see on the horizon that could cause a serious problem with [that] stability is the referendum in Scotland”. Others like the former Irish ambassador to the UK Daithí Ó Ceallaigh believe that “there is always the potential for violence” and Ian Paisley Junior of the DUP has also warned of potential violence.

The doomsday scenario of course is that a close referendum result in Scotland leads to violence on the streets and underlying sectarian fault lines in particular in the west of Scotland merge with increasing dissatisfaction with the direction of events in Northern Ireland, unlikely as that may seem at this juncture.

The Disappearing Cultural Link

The identification of people as British amongst the unionist and loyalist communities of Northern Ireland is very strong, perhaps stronger than anywhere else in the UK. It has been their cultural rock over centuries as they have withstood Irish nationalism. However the connection of British people in Northern Ireland, the royal family notwithstanding, with London and indeed England or Wales in general is weak. The longstanding ties of language, culture and religion are with their kith and kin across the sea in the lowlands of Scotland.

As Daniel Marriott has put it “Scottish separatism in particular undermines the Ulster Unionist identity in the sense that it challenges the ethnic ties to the island of Great Britain by asserting Scottish difference and uniqueness from the rest of the UK - including Northern Ireland.” As Marriott and others have suggested an independent Scotland may be a factor in driving people in Northern Ireland towards a new identity as Northern Irish. The census in 2011 showed that 29% of people in Northern Ireland now consider themselves Northern Irish. Admittedly this could be in addition to being British or Irish but this may be a pointer to an identity that is crystallising and evolving from the ‘either or’ identity choice of the past. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess, the DUP have in the past flirted with the idea of an independent Northern Ireland and they are also cognisant of the fact that they need to attract Catholic voters.

The possibility of Scottish independence leading to Irish unity however seems remote. Lord Trimble believes that Scottish independence may lead to Irish republicans “getting excited and saying it can be done”, but the current financial situation of the Republic would most likely preclude this at present, as practically speaking taking on a population almost half its’ size that is massively dependent on state employment would at the present juncture, appear to be a non-runner.

A changed UK

There can be little doubt that whatever the result of the referendum, the governmental structures within the UK will have to change. All the pro-union parties have signed up now to deliver ‘devo-max’ to Scotland and moves to increase autonomy in Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to follow. The question of an English parliament of some sort rumbles on under the surface and will have to be faced at some stage in order to overcome the strange situation of parliamentarians from outside of England deciding on English only issues in Westminster.

If Scotland did become independent a radical restructuring of the UK looks necessary. While Northern Ireland’s share of the population of the new UK would increase from 2.9% to 3.2%, 510 out of 550 of the Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster would then be representing English constituencies. A realignment of some sort will be necessary to counteract the departure of Scotland from the UK. Carwyn Jones the Welsh First Minister has suggested that an elected upper house of parliament having some similarities to the United States Senate may be the answer with equal representation from the three remaining nations.

There can be little doubt though that whatever the result on September 18th the ripples will be felt across the Sea of Moyle in Northern Island and what effect those ripples have could change things in these islands quite dramatically. Northern Ireland’s most famous tourist attraction the Giants Causeway is according to legend the remains of a bridge to Scotland built by Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The decision of Scotland on the political bridge that is the Union may create a ripple, a wave or a tsunami across the narrows in Northern Ireland; only time will tell.


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About the author

Aonghus Ó Ceallaigh is a lawyer working in Kosovo having formerly worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UK, Ireland and New Zealand.

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