By Peter Geoghegan
A century ago, the constitutional future of Scotland seemed irrevocably bound up with that of Ireland. In 1912, Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith – a proponent of ‘Home Rule all round’ – introduced the Government of Ireland Bill, soon followed by a similar devolution settlement for Scotland.
The rest, of course, is history. The Great War put paid to both Scotland and Ireland’s hopes of devolved government. By the time the conflict was over, Ireland was on the cusp of independence, and Scottish Home Rule had slipped (or, depending on your reading, was pushed) off the political agenda.

Now, more than 90 years on, the political destinies of Ireland and Scotland are bound up together once again. Let there be no doubt, the state that has most interest in the result on September 18 is not Spain, or Belgium, Norway or Sweden, but our neighours across the Irish Sea.

The break up of Britain would have a significant impact on Ireland, says Paul Gillespie, former foreign editor of the Irish Times and the author of a report called ‘Scotland’s vote on Independence, The Implications for Ireland,’ published earlier this year by the Institute for International and European Affairs in Dublin.

“Ireland is directly linked politically and constitutionally to the UK through Northern Ireland and the Belfast Agreement of 1998. The long ties of colonial occupation, war, joint politics, and the struggle for Irish self-rule and independence give the two states an unparalleled historical intimacy,” Gillespie writes.

Once acutely painful, this ‘historical intimacy’ has become less abrasive in recent years – the Queen visited Ireland in 2011, London and Dublin now work closely both over Northern Ireland and European affairs, in March 2012 Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Prime Minister David Cameron reached the Downing Street agreement on joint consultations and co-operation.

There is genuine sympathy for the Scottish nationalist cause among many in Ireland. Having fought in previous generations for national soverignity, a degree of empathy is inevitable. But in government circles there is a distinct nervousness about what a ‘yes’ vote could mean for Irish interests. 

Most pressing is what Scotland leaving the union might mean for the north of Ireland. Many republicans (but not all) would welcome a reopening of ‘the Irish Question’ in the 21st century, but the reality is that politicians in Dublin have little or no desire to see Northern Ireland leapfrog to the top of the government’s agenda. The status quo that has developed since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 suits both Westminster and Leinster House.

“If the UK breaks up, then Irish unity would be put on the political agenda far more quickly than Irish political elites and voters North or South expect or desire,” writes Gillespie.

But the north is not the only aspect of Scottish independence vexing panjandrums in Dublin. Ireland has worked hard to carve a niche for itself as a small, independent, Celtic nation with an economic stragtegy based on foreign direct investment – it is an approach that has not gone unnoticed among the upper echolons of the SNP.

While Alex Salmond has disavowed the ‘arc of prosperity’ that he proposed at Trinity College, Dublin, back in 2008, he still cleaves to the Irish model of low corporation taxes. The SNP have committed to lowering corporation tax to 17 per cent after independence. Even during the bailout, Ireland fiercely guarded its European-low rate of 12.5 per cent.

For some in Ireland the prospect of a similarly-sized neighbour with an educated work force competing for the same international business is not a comforting one. “There is a fearfulness in official Ireland,” says Paul Gillespie. “A yes (vote) would be welcome but laced with realism about the competitive aspect.” Even a ‘no’ vote in September could cause some discomfit for ‘official Ireland’, if it were followed by a new devolution settlement that included corporation tax powers.

While the Unionist camp have raised the spectre of border posts at Gretna Green if Scotland votes ‘yes’, the SNP have countered, not unreasonably, by pointing to the situation in Ireland, where effectively the border between north and south is invisible. What is most likely to change that – and what most worries mandarins in Dublin – is not Scottish independence, but the UK leaving the European Union.

If Britain votes to leaves the EU, Ireland “could face new borders and tensions”, “potentially creating a messy and more harshly competitive regulatory environment,” writes Paul Gillespie.

There is plenty that Scottish nationalists can glean from a backwards glance at Irish history. In 1922, the Irish Free State was born with the King as head of state and effective ‘sterlingisation’, a nominally independent currency pegged to the pound. (Both came with significant costs: the latter economic stagnation, the former was a significant factor in the outbreak of the civil war). 

But Scottish nationalism is very different from its Irish cousin of almost a century ago. The SNP are avowedly civic, not ethnic, nationalists, more technocratic than revolutionary. The focus of the Yes Scotland campaign – embodied in November’s White Paper – has been on the different public policies that an independent Scotland could pursue grounded on the country’s perceived preference for ‘compassion’ and ‘equality’ over the market and neo-liberal economics.

Scottish nationalists might actually find some empirical support for this ambition from Ireland. In a paper published in 1983, entitled ‘The Public Policy Effects of Independence: Ireland as Test Case’, political scientists Richard Rose and Tom Garvin examined whether or not independence made a real difference to a country’s public policy – and their finding was a resounding ‘yes’.

“Independence does cause government to adopt distinctive public policies in different areas”, Rose and Garvin wrote.

An independent Scotland would also emerge from the union in a much healthier position than agrarian Ireland did almost a century ago. Scotland is highly developed, and possesses significant reserves of oil and gas and renewable energy.

Whether Scotland realises those assets as an independent state or within the United Kingdom, Ireland will be looking on with more than disinterested curiosity.


2014-03-15 01:27

I hope that everyone in these British Isles will realise after our independence that it is in all of our interests to agree where possible.
Given the stance of the present government in England however,I
have great reservations that they are prepared to do so.
I hope that these people will accept the settled democratic will of the Scottish people.

2014-03-15 08:30

Indeed bringiton, that is where unnecessary difficulties might lie.
England is so unfortunate to have allowed a ‘pomp & circumstance’ mentality – encouraged it, even – to enter their national thinking.
Every nation has its vast range of individual abilities – evolution at work, but numerically larger nations can cultivate a superiority outlook based on nothing more than population numbers.
2014-03-15 09:39

Personally, the rights and wrongs of Ireland and Northern Ireland are obscured by the long shadow of the troubles.
Scotland has a great many undecided voters, which in one sense means the difference between a YES voter and a No voter isn’t very much at all. I am immensely relieved that Scotland’s debate has not been polarized to two extremes with no common ground between them, or alternatively, branded by violence with every living entity in the country obliged to declare its loyalties.

There’s a book I once read which described “the great brawl” of Scotland’s history. I forget the book now, but the term has stuck with me. Perhaps we have learned by it, that victory in a brawl is won by force, but a victory won by common consent is much the stronger proposition.

And please cousin Ireland, don’t fear our competition. Let us both be rich and happy and trade the hell from one another.
2014-03-15 18:15

Peter states, “But Scottish nationalism is very different from its Irish cousin of almost a century ago. The SNP are avowedly civic, not ethnic, nationalists, more technocratic than revolutionary.” I would contend that Irish nationalism was defined principally by the Gaelic language rather than ethnicity or religion. The reason why many Irish nationalists were revolutionary is because England subverted the constitutional parliamentary process by banning Dail Eireann in 1919, thus making the War of Independence inevitable. The article is otherwise very good.

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