Scotland's Irish Question: During the Years of the Troubles, Catholics Looked to Labour as Their Protector. but All That Has Changed, to the Advantage of the SNP, Writes Rob Brown

By Brown, Rob | New Statesman (1996), March 5, 2012 | Go to article overview

Scotland's Irish Question: During the Years of the Troubles, Catholics Looked to Labour as Their Protector. but All That Has Changed, to the Advantage of the SNP, Writes Rob Brown


Brown, Rob, New Statesman (1996)


Throughout the long march towards the thresh-old of Scottish independence, Alex Salmond has been mindful to walk and talk like a civic rather than an ethnic nationalist. But the Scottish National Party chieftain isn't above stirring up the blood-and-soil stuff just a wee bit when he thinks there might be some political mileage in it. His referendum on Scotland's future within the Union has been scheduled for 2014 to roll off the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. This will be an event of near holy significance to those whose sense of history stems from Mel Gibson's Braveheart. Yet, when I was growing up on a council estate in West Lothian in the 1960s and 1970s (not far from where Salmond was raised), I never saw "1314" scrawled on any walls. There was loads of graffiti, though, yelling about "1690" and occasionally "1916".

These digits celebrated decisive chapters in the blood-soaked history of Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne and Dublin's Easter Rising. Forget Bannockburn - the most seismic event in modern Scottish history was the huge influx of half-starved Irish immigrants fleeing from the great famine in the mid-igth century. Ever since, the Scottish question has been entangled with the Irish question. The degree to which that remains the case - or has largely ceased to be so - could have a deep bearing on the forthcoming referendum.

What used to matter a lot in places such as West Lothian was whether you were a "Billy" or a "Tim", a Protestant or a Catholic. Many of the Catholics who had emigrated from Ireland worked in Scotland's first oil industry, extracting paraffin from deep-mined shale. They were much in the minority but their votes counted considerably, because almost all of them went to the Labour candidate. Time and time again, the Tims played a decisive role in returning Tarn Dalyell, MP for West Lothian and then for Linlithgow. He was an Old Etonian and arch denouncer not just of Scottish independence but devolution. That the SNP used to field one of its most high-profile figures against this socialist toff made no difference. What counted was that the Nat in question was, quite literally, a Billy - and it didn't help that he put William Wolfe on his posters.

In some ways, West Lothian was culturally closer to Ulster than Edinburgh, with Catholics cowering in their chapels during Mass when loyalist marches halted menacingly outside to beat their Lambeg drums. "As kids, I can remember being told that if the SNP came into power, then all the Catholics would be kicked out of Scotland," Raymond Ross, a Catholic teacher and writer who grew up in the ex-mining town of Whitburn, recalled in a book of memoirs about 20th-century Scotland.

From its first big breakthrough in 1968 until well after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast three decades later, the SNP was seen by many working-class Catholics as a Protestant party, even as an Orange organisation. The Labour Party was perceived as prime protector of Catholics: in the 1990s, three-quarters of MPs in the west of Scotland were from this minority denomination. Fears among Catholics that Scotland could become "another Northern Ireland" persisted into the new millennium. In the 2001 general election, two-thirds of Mass-attending Scottish Catholics voted Labour. Equally significantly, however, only half of middle-class Catholics did so. Those prospering in the professions were increasingly proud of their Scottishness and many of them were marrying non-Catholics.

These profound social shifts were to prove decisive factors in what has been described (perhaps prematurely) as the strange death of Labour Scotland. Today, the sense of Scottish identity among Catholics is on a par with that of Protestants and, even more importantly, support for independence has even surged to a higher level among the minority faith, according to Tom Devine, a leading historian of Scotland.

Increasingly, the only people in Scotland who seem terrified by the prospect of independence are those dubbed "Nipples" - Northern Irish Protestants living and educated in Scotland.

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