While Britain and Europe’s tectonic plates move, we argue about Orangemen and Ardoyne

[This is taken from Andy Pollak’s monthly blog www.2irelands2gether.com]

What is the strategic issue causing senior people in the Irish Department of Foreign affairs to lose their sleep these nights? In the week that Michael D. Higgins paid the first ever, spectacularly successful state visit by an Irish President to Britain, it is the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and its exit from the European Union.

In September the Scottish people will vote on independence.As Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s advisor on Northern Ireland, wrote in a thoughtful article in the Financial Times recently [‘A broken union would unsettle NI’, 5 February], a Yes vote would open up the constitutional question in Northern Ireland at a very delicate time. The Good Friday Agreement did not settle that question but was rather an agreement to disagree about it and nonetheless to share power. Unionists continue to want to remain in a united British kingdom, and nationalists and republicans continue to seek a united Ireland. Sinn Fein would up the ante in the wake of a Yes vote and in the run-up to the anniversary of the Easter Rising by demanding an early referendum on the border on the same principle as the Scots.

Such a vote would have a particularly destabilising effect on the unionists, whose natural ties are with Scotland rather than England. They pride themselves on their common Scottish Presbyterian heritage, their Ulster-Scots way of talking and their common passion for Scottish dancing and football, and their children go in their thousands to Scottish universities.

The numbers in Scotland are so far not enough to deliver a Yes vote, although the momentum is in this direction. But the real nightmare is the second, related scenario: the issue of Britain’s EU membership. Things would get very complicated indeed if – while an independent Scotland was applying for EU membership (a process that would take some time) – the rest of Britain was proceeding to pull out of the Union after the referendum promised by David Cameron in 2017. Would we end up with England, Wales and Northern Ireland outside the EU, and Ireland and Scotland inside?

As Powell puts it: “With borders at both Stranraer in Scotland and South Armagh on the border with Ireland, Northern Ireland would find itself in real difficulties, and not just commercially. What has enabled the free movement of people in these islands, including Ireland, since 1922 is the Common Travel Area, where all the jurisdictions have the same rules on entry from outside. With a patchwork quilt of memberships of the EU, we would have to impose travel restrictions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The notion of policing those two borders is a nightmare, and that is what really bothers policy makers in Dublin and Belfast.”

Whatever about policy makers in Belfast, it is not something that the people of Northern Ireland and their newspapers are discussing. I looked in vain in recent weeks and months for serious treatment of this vital topic by any commentator in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and News Letter. There was plenty of argument about earth-shattering issues like where and when Orangemen should parade during the coming ‘marching season’, but nothing about the tectonic plates shifting the constitutional relationships affecting this province, these islands, and the wider continent of which we are – notionally – a part. The Irish Times – through its former foreign editor Paul Gillespie – and even faraway Al Jazeera has been discussing these issues, but not the media of our ‘wee province.’

Of course, all this may be academic. As Powell also points out, it looks probable that the people of Scotland will vote to remain in the union and thus will accept the solution on identity found in the Good Friday Agreement: nationalists and republicans can be Irish and still part of the UK. “Trying to be Sinn Féin, or ‘Ourselves Alone’, in Scotland, and raising new borders makes very little sense in the modern world,” is Powell’s opinion.

Whether Britain will go it alone by leaving Europe, as current opinion poll trends seem to indicate, is another matter. What is certain is that that Northern Ireland will be ill-informed about and ill-prepared for such an eventuality. If and when we look around after such an huge event, we will notice that we are, once again, facing Churchill’s unfortunately all-too-prophetic words of nearly a century ago: “The whole map of Europe has been changed … The mode of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes…but as the deluge subsides and waters fall, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

  • Andy,

    I’m glad you quoted Churchill at the end as I was reminded of his words while reading your article. Ninety years on they are still valid. If NI continues to experience an unemployment problem as heavy industry continues to leave, those that are redundant can always be employed by the state as border guards and customs agents.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Considering the scale of conflict in much of the rest of world in 90 years for Fermanagh and Tyrone to stay the same to the extent they have is quite an achievement, even with a ruthless IRA campaign.

    A crystal ball would be usefull, otherwise think we are spectaors on the scale things.

  • Brian Walker

    Nice one isn’t it?

    Comparisons.. Norway and Sweden..
    Both countries are members of the Schengen Area, and there are therefore no immigration controls. However, only Sweden is part of the European Union, so there are customs checks. These are performed by the Norwegian Customs and Excise Authorities and the Swedish Customs Service. These checks are sporadic along the Norway–Sweden border. Both countries emphasise checks against other countries.

    But the UK isn’t part of Schengen. Could Ireland, Scotland and rUK negotiate a new temporary common travel area? I’ve also heard an eminent legal authorities arguing for the EU to keep the customs union for Scotland until full EU membership is negotiated and a decision is reached on any in-out referendum for rUK.

    Pretty tricky stuff. Is it to be back to the pre-1965 Irish border, when the UK and Ireland negotiated a free trade treaty?

    The Swiss have just voted in a referendum for immigration controls to the annoyance of Brussels. What we could be seeing is a far looser EU. I agree it’s all very hairy. The London government is refusing to discuss the options even hypothetically in advance of the September referendum.

    I’m with Mr Micawber on this..

  • Charles_Gould

    Sounds like a bit of scaremongering.

    Ironically if Scotland did leave the UK it would be cheaper (under EU law) to go to its Universities, not more expensive.

  • Reader

    Charles_Gould: Ironically if Scotland did leave the UK it would be cheaper (under EU law) to go to its Universities, not more expensive.
    The issue is more exciting than that. EU students can go at the same price as Scottish students at present under EU rules. Scottish universities can charge English (Welsh, Northern Irish) students full price because they aren’t in a different EU country. Northern Ireland students have been able to get the cheap seats by presenting an Irish passport, but I think that loophole is being closed.
    So, what happens if Scotland leaves the UK but gets back into the EU without changing the rules? Answer – it gets flooded by English students avoiding the 9000 per year fees in England, and EU rules don’t let Scotland discriminate against English students any more.
    Presumably Salmond has a cunning plan. Scottish taxes can subsidise French, German and Irish students, but the thought of subsidising English students is too much to bear.

  • between the bridges

    Meh, fecking European’s…

  • JoeBryce

    You all make it sound like it is Scotland that is leaving. It isn’t. It is England that is about to vote, by a landslide, to leave Europe. The rest of us need to thread our path through the debris that will be left. It will bring the whole of Ireland together with Scotland in Europe, while England fulfils her destiny of becoming the 51st State.

  • Turgon

    Such a vote would have a particularly destabilising effect on the unionists, whose natural ties are with Scotland rather than England. They pride themselves on their common Scottish Presbyterian heritage, their Ulster-Scots way of talking and their common passion for Scottish dancing and football, and their children go in their thousands to Scottish universities

    Childish over simplification strikes again. Undoubtedly many Ulster unionists have an affinity with Scotland.

    However, although there are many Presbyterians there are also many CoI, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Brethren etc. which are much more English or Welsh linked denominations than Scottish. Remember Dr. Paisley went to a Welsh Bible college.

    Ulster Scots speech is an interest for many but is a minority interest. Scottish dancing even more so. Fans of Scottish football are probably (certainly) outnumbered by fans of the English Premier League (that hold good for nationalists and those in the RoI as well).

    Finally yes many unionist (and nationalist) students go to Scottish universities. However, places like Newcastle also have large NI student contingents.

    However, a simplified and simplistic argument is so much more fun. Pigeon holing most / all of a group into a one size fits box tends to say a great deal more about the prejudices of the one doing it than anything else.