One month away from Scotland’s Moment of Truth, it is worth reflecting how eerie the symmetries and coincidences of history can sometimes be. Followers of Irish and Scottish affairs know this to be a bumper year for anniversaries in both countries. A millennium ago the celebrated Battle of Clontarf was fought just north of Dublin – a crucial battle in wresting Ireland from Viking control. Three centuries later the Scots copper-fastened their independence from the English by worsting them in the Battle of Bannockburn. Much later, in 1914, the Home Rule Crisis was reaching fever pitch as Irishmen and -women prepared for the long-awaited, long-promised Home Rule Bill to become law that year. Next month, of course, Scotland’s electorate will vote on whether their country should be independent.
Perhaps the eeriest coincidence is that for nationalists in both Scotland and Ireland the date of 18 September is a critical one. Scots will vote on independence this year exactly one hundred years after the Government of Ireland Bill received the Royal Assent, and thus acquired the force of law. OK, so the Government of Ireland Act was immediately suspended because of the First World War, and measures were afoot to dilute its force with a degree of exclusion for at least part of Ulster – but it is nonetheless significant. The former Taoiseach John Bruton recently went so far as to argue that this date should be celebrated by Irish patriots as THE key moment for Ireland’s independence – and that it should be marked at the expense of Easter Monday 1916. (Bruton has, to put it mildly, sparked some controversy over this claim.)
Comparing the destinies of Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond can take on the form of a parlour game – akin almost to spotting the similarities between the assassinations of US Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy. A hundred years apart, both Salmond and Redmond are the popular leaders of each man’s nationalist movement. Both are committed to peaceful and constitutional politics. Both are compelling orators and campaigners. Both at various times face often patronising broadsides from English commentators and politicians over whether their countries can govern themselves. On the more trivial end of the game, both men’s surnames end in with the same four letters and each man’s first name has four letters, etc.
There are also important differences between the two leaders. Redmond and the IPP were apparently happy with Home Rule (limited self-government) within the British Empire as a solution to Ireland’s problems – although many in his party were doubtless hoping to use it as a stepping stone to more substantial powers – while Salmond and his party clearly want full independence. Salmond also (unlike Redmond) has the advantage of not being squeezed between extremely hostile forces. Redmond had to look over both his shoulders at Ulster Unionists and the republicans of Sinn Fein, while Salmond has not had to worry about either militant Scottish republicans or unionists threatening trouble and disruption. Salmond already has what Redmond so nearly obtained – control over most of his country’s political affairs – and when power was devolved to Scotland in 1999 there was no sign of unionists in one part of the country setting up a private army and demanding special treatment for their region.
Recent events suggest, though, that there may be more crucial similarities between the SNP and IPP leaders. One is that each man made strategic mistakes when campaigning for his country’s self-government. As one commentator has noted, the first televised independence debate was Salmond’s to lose, and he proceeded to do just that. The issue on which many consider him to have fallen down in the STV clash on 5 August is that of the currency question: if, as has been promised, the UK government in Westminster vetoes a currency union with an independent Scotland, what is the SNP’s Plan B? Neither Salmond nor anyone else in his party has convincingly answered the question, and this failure could end up costing their cause dearly. There are also concerns over how much North Sea oil reserves there are for Scotland, and whether the revenues can still pay well.
In Ireland a hundred years ago, John Redmond was campaigning for Home Rule, so a currency union was already available. Nonetheless, most historians agree that Redmond also made serious strategic errors which – with the benefit of hindsight – torpedoed his objective of a Home-Ruled United Ireland. In his book “The Green Flag”, Robert Kee argues that even by conceding temporary exclusion of part of Ulster in 1914 Redmond had put the kibosh on his objective:
‘Now that the government and Redmond had bowed before [the Ulster Unionists'] threat sufficiently to offer them the principle of exclusion of four Ulster counties, they could feel confident of obtaining better terms still.’
Tim Pat Coogan, in his book “Ireland in the Twentieth Century”, agrees, adding that Redmond’s support for – and urging of Irishmen to fight in – the European war in August that year (in the hope that this would boost his country’s chances of obtaining Home Rule) was another serious mistake:
‘In retrospect, his espousal of the cause of recruitment to the British army seems both naive and ill-judged, and certainly helped to send thousands of young Irishmen to their deaths… The conscription issue and Redmond’s fate, drowning in a tide of pro-Sinn Fein sentiment, a shattered, disillusioned figure, would henceforth stand as an awful warning for Irish Nationalists when faced with the prospect of trusting English statesmen.’
Whichever way Scotland’s IndyRef vote goes next month, the main parties in Westminster have already promised additional powers for the government in Edinburgh (the so-called “Devo Max” option), and when that happens the parties in Stormont are all but certain to demand similar powers for their Executive. However their countries’ respective destinies turn out, the experiences of both Salmond and Redmond show that much depends on leadership and strategy – and avoiding political banana skins.