Could Indy Referendum Become A ‘Border Poll’?

As Brian Walker notes elsewhere on these pages, David Cameron’s pronouncement that a binding Scottish independence must take place within the next 18 months has significantly altered the dynamic of the debate on Scottish sovereignty. SNP deputy Nicola Sturgeon has warned against impositions from Westminster on the timing of the vote and the nature of the question(s) asked.

An article in today’s Scotsman suggests that such interference from London could lead disgruntled Nationalists to boycott any independence referendum, drawing a direct comparison with the Border Poll in 1973.

If Westminster was to press ahead with its own poll, it is likely to lead to a situation similar to the 1973 Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum.

That vote, on whether the country should remain part of the UK or join the Republic to form a united Ireland, was seen by many as having been discredited after a Nationalist boycott, which resulted in 98.9 per cent of voters backing the status quo. However, there was a still turnout of 58.1 per cent – well above the 50 per cent at the last Holyrood election in May.

Comparisons between Scotland and the 1973 poll in Northern Ireland were also drawn a couple of months back by Scottish commentator Gerry Hassan in Guardian.co.uk, who described the Border Poll as an ‘important precedent’.

Right now Nationalists in Scotland are a long way from issuing a boycott for a referendum many have spent a lifetime campaigning for, but continued interference from London could change that position. Meanwhile, the effect of the independence debate on Northern Ireland and its constitutional future has – these pages excepted – been surprisingly quiet. Given its strong cultural and historical ties with Ireland, and particularly Ulster and indeed Unionism, any move by Scotland away from the United Kingdom could provoke an existentialist crisis both in whatever remains of the union and among Northern Irish unionists, and even nationalists.

In 1936, US sociologist Robert Merton published a seminal paper on the ‘law of unintended consequences’. Over 75 years on, could the Indy campaign in Scotland have some unexpected repercussions in Northern Ireland?

Peter lives in Edinburgh but works across Ireland and Scotland. He is the editor of Political Insight, a magazine published by the Political Studies Association, and a a regular contributor to various publications including The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Sunday Business Post, The Scotsman, and The Glasgow Herald. He is also on Twitter @PeterKGeoghegan.