Trajectories of Union

By ord, James | Renewal, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Trajectories of Union


ord, James, Renewal


Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas (second edition)

Richard Bourke

PIMLICO, 2012

The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007

Alvin Jackson

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011

In January of this year, Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, made a characteristically bold statement during an interview on Ireland's state radio broadcaster, RTE. The immediate context was a tussle between Holyrood and Westminster on the timing of the referendum on whether Scotland should reconstitute itself as a new state separate from the UK. Salmond told Irish listeners that 'as many people in Ireland will remember ... sometimes people in leadership positions in big countries find it very difficult not to bully small countries ... bullying and hectoring the Scottish people from London ain't going to work'. It was the response from north of the border that proved most revealing. While the former UUP leader Lord Trimble predictably upbraided Salmond for his 'grandstanding on stilts', it was the SDLP's Seamus Mallon who pointed out that 'Scotland was part of the bullying that took place in Ireland ... As recently as 15 years ago, you had Scottish regiments here, enforcing the writ of Britain' (Peterkin, 2012).

The Irish, and Northern Irish, dimension to the 'Scottish Question' goes largely unexplored in day-to-day metropolitan discussion of the 2014 referendum. Yet, as both Salmond's rhetoric and the prominent deployment of UUP and DUP politicians in the pro-union campaign north of the border, demonstrate, Irish connections and parallels intrude on the two most important dimensions to the debate: national identity and political economy (Clarke, 2012; Elliot, 2012; see also Michael Keating's article in this issue). Where nationalist rhetoric has long sought to render Scotland, like Ireland, a victim, rather than a co-author (Rothschild, 2011), of the British imperial enterprise, it has more recently sought to construct a positive vision of a Scottish state. Pre-crisis, Scotland was to be dynamic, yet equitable, with Scandinavian social services and tax and regulation policies explicitly modelled on the Irish example, the 'Celtic Lion' to the 'Celtic Tiger' (Salmond, 2008). Latterly, the appeal to 'devo-max'--or 'home rule'--as a flexible category between the status quo and statehood has sought to reassure voters. The shade of Charles Stewart Parnell, as well as that of Keir Hardie, is now invoked in aid of a more flexible conception of 'independence' (Salmond, 2012). On the unionist side, the connections between Presbyterian Scottish voters in the heavily urbanised West and the 'Ulster Scots' of Northern Ireland may prove significant to the political sociology of the referendum: 'independence' would imply the construction of a new state separate not only from England, but also from Northern Ireland. It was the question of Irish Home Rule that evoked some of the most strident declarations of a popular unionist identity in Scotland, independent of the long-established 'banal' unionism of a progressive intellectual elite. The affinities between the West of Scotland and Ulster remain strong (Kidd, 2008). Meanwhile, the unionist case against statehood has focused on the claim that it does not equate to what the SNP call 'independence', if this is to be understood as a condition of genuine political autonomy for an organised community. This could prove to be an elusive quality in the contemporary world economy, and especially in the immediate context of the crisis in the eurozone (Boffey and Helm, 2012). For the union campaign, there is no more proximate example than that of Ireland to suggest that statehood alone cannot guarantee effective political autonomy in a post-crisis world.

These two conceptually ambitious historical studies provide us with some resources for thinking about the interconnections between the trajectories of Ireland and Scotland on a deeper level, placing them within and without the British state since the start of the eighteenth century. …

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