Sunday 4 November 2012

The SNP threatens unionism not only in Scotland

I realised recently how ignorant I was about the history of Northern Ireland, when 30,000 Ulstermen recently marched to commemorate the Ulster Covenant of 1912. I was barely aware that such a covenant even existed, let alone that it should be considered so important to unionists in Northern Ireland that they should gather in such numbers. It was natural to compare this turn out with the the meagre 5000 who turned out for the Scottish nationalist’s independence march in Edinburgh,  which happened a week earlier. But the apparent contrast between support for unionism and lack of support for nationalism masks what is a genuine threat to the continued existence of Northern Ireland in the Union.
Northern Ireland has fought hard to remain a part of Britain. It is interesting to speculate what might have been the result if Ulstermen had not opposed Irish Home Rule. Perhaps Ireland would then have considered that it had been given enough power and would not then have demanded full independence. It is possible that the Union of Great Britain and Ireland could have endured until today. This must be an ideal close to every unionist’s heart. On the other hand, perhaps the people of Ulster had the prescience to realise that giving in to nationalism, does not lead to a decrease of nationalism, but rather an increase. Just as Scottish devolution has fueled nationalism and given rise to a vote on independence, which was unimaginable before devolution, so Home Rule for Ireland inevitably would have led to an independent Ireland, which would have brought Ulster with it, against Ulster’s will. It was this which the unionists in Ulster were fighting against when they signed the covenant. But while 1912 is obviously an important date in the history of Northern Ireland, there are obviously more important dates to come. Northern Ireland came into being in 1921, but there must be a real question as to whether it will reach this anniversary and still remain a part of the UK.
During the troubles in Northern Ireland, there was always the threat that the rest of Britain would get sick of the bloodshed and decide to sell Ulster down the river. But in general most people in Scotland, England and Wales stood alongside our fellow Brits in Northern Ireland, and accepted the principle that so long as a majority of the population in Northern Ireland wished to remain part of Britain, they should have the right to do so. We all thought it worth fighting for that right, just as we considered that it was correct to fight armed aggression against the Falklanders’ wish to remain British. What worried me at this time most however, was the situation with regard to the demographics of Northern Ireland. If it should ever be the case that the majority of the population of Northern Ireland should not wish to be part of Britain, we could hardly thwart this will. The problem for Northern Irish unionists seemed to be the decline of Protestantism in the province and the rise of Catholicism. If Catholics wanted reunification with the Republic and if they ever became a majority in Northern Ireland, then it would appear as if a united Ireland could happen simply because of the higher Catholic birthrate.
From my relatively ignorant Scottish perspective I used to think that all Catholics were nationalists, or republicans, while all Protestants were unionists. Recent research however, suggests that an overwhelming 73% of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the UK. Most importantly a 52% majority of Catholics also want to remain in the Union. The future of Northern Ireland is not then at all threatened by demographics and the message to unionist parties would seem to be clear: reach out to Catholics for the majority of them are unionists too.
Strangely, the greatest threat to Northern Ireland’s future does not at all come from within, but from without. Many Ulstermen see themselves as Ulster Scots. But while these Ulster Scots almost to a man see themselves as British, this view is not shared by all of their compatriots across the Irish sea. The rejection of Britishness by a proportion of the Scottish population, which inevitably leads them to desire independence from the UK, turns out to be the greatest threat to Northern Ireland, for if Scotland were to leave the Union, it is entirely unclear that the Union could survive.
The problem with Scottish independence for Northern Ireland is that it would set a precedent. The people of Wales with their own parliament and with a significant minority speaking their own language, might well consider that they too could follow the example of Scotland. The biggest danger, however would be that the English might really discover their own nationalism. The English could well say to Northern Ireland, “we want to be independent from you.” If Scotland has the right to be independent, that right can hardly be denied to England. Northern Ireland could not force England or Wales to remain in the Union, no matter how many should march in Belfast. Could Northern Ireland survive as an independent country? Would it have to seek union with the Republic? Even to ask these questions is to see the prospect of renewed conflict.
It is vitally important therefore that unionists throughout Britain realise the danger that the Scottish Nationalists present to our country. Although people in Northern Ireland, Wales and England will not have a vote in the referendum, it is vital that they say with one voice that they want Scotland to stay. The good riddance mentality expressed by some people in England is profoundly short sighted as it is liable to increase support for independence in Scotland. It is natural to react to threats of divorce with antipathy. However, a heartfelt plea to stay and an expression of the mutual need to stay together from our fellow countrymen in all parts of Britain would make a major contribution to defeating the secessionists. All of us, wherever we live in the UK, would be profoundly affected by Scotland becoming independent. It would fling us all into constitutional and economic chaos and who knows what kind of nationalistic antagonism and conflict. It would do this moreover, at a time of economic crisis unprecedented since the thirties. Scots should think very carefully about inflicting this sort of disorder on our own countrymen for the sake of a supposed political and economic advantage which even if it turned out to be real, would be at the expense of others especially our fellow Scots in Ulster. This really is a case of brother turning against brother forgetting “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”