Last Sunday, The Irish Voice hosted a debate in Malone’s Irish bar meant to focus some attention on issues of relevance to Scots of Catholic Irish heritage.
In the event just 30 people turned up and at least 3 of those were journalists, including Mark Hennessy, UK correspondent of the Irish times.
I was one of the speakers for Better Together. Rather optimistically, I assumed that providing an Irish dimension to what has often been a doggedly inward-looking debate, might appeal to this Irish-orientated audience.
How wrong I was as most were on the far-left and viewed Ireland in simplistic terms.
I mentioned the fact that Ireland had been mismanaged economically for most of its 90 years of independence, something that national figures there openly acknowledged.
I wondered about the impact of the break-up of its chief sponsor, Britain, on the fragile Ulster peace process.
I pointed out that opinion polls regularly showed that the Ulster minority, mostly now backers of Sinn Fein in elections, nevertheless overwhelmingly preferred to remain part of Britain and keep a united Ireland until a rainy day.
Conversations were recalled from recent trips made to Ireland. Nobody on that talkative island declared: ‘You’re finally doing the logical thing and cutting loose from Mother England’s apron strings’.
Instead, there was concern about wanting to break apart an integrated economy and overnight turn 90% of your domestic market into a foreign market.
Somebody with a knowledge of his country’s turbulent modern history observed that Irish republicans negotiating with British leaders – Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera in 1921 and their present day counterparts Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – were never as confrontational as Alex Salmond is right now.
Contrary to their romantic image, most Irish people are hard-headed and practical. They have had to struggle to achieve the tenuous prosperity that they enjoy today. They rate politicians on their commitment to boosting living standards and keeping them out of harms way.
A radical like Alex Salmond who wants to have his currency dictated by the bank of the country that he wants to secede from, would be regarded as a very risky bet. His 2014 White Paper, full of un-costed promises, would be regarded by many Irish people as a charter for grinding poverty.
They have seen through enough demagogues not to spot a chancer quite a long distance off.
He essentially wants to create a new elite of insiders. They will benefit economically and in terms of prestige by the Alex Salmond cultural revolution. Scotland’s British identity will be dug up. Many of the country’s proud Scottish traditions will be dumped if tacky and heavily politicised ones can be found to replace them.
With the benefit of hindsight, plenty of Irish people are wary of superficial arguments for nationalism. They certainly wish to be self-reliant but see that their political elite has failed to harness the country’s abundant resources. New overlords have been found in Brussels who turn out to be far less accommodating than British decision-makers.
A string of Irish embassies, seats in the UN and the EU, new statues,, new names for streets, canals and railway stations named after Irish heroes are the most visible results of independence. But people emigrated in their droves most finding a haven in Britain.
My audience was reminded that there was never a strong anti-British feeling in everyday Irish society. British tourists continued to be welcomed throughout the years of the Ulster troubles when Britain was accused of excesses, some of which Tony Blair and David Cameron later even apologised for.
Anti-English feeling has been a feature of Scottish popular culture, one that was previously submerged by a rich set of British associations. However, during an increasingly destructive referendum campaign it has emerged from the shadows and is becoming increasingly respectable.
I expressed my fears that Irish-orientated Scots might be embracing part of that Anglophobia. I was worried about young people, many indeed Celtic supporters, who saw themselves as part of a ‘rebel culture’.
This used to be directed at a Scottish ‘establishment’ felt to be keeping their club down. But now many Celtic fans saw backing the previously despised SNP and its independence mirage as a worthy expression of that rebel culture.
If it turns the minority in an anti-English direction, I believe it would be disastrous for a community which I spring from and whose history I have written up in several academic books.
At least my audience clapped when I sat down, maybe out of a sense of relief. They were far more relaxed with Sarah Collins, a researcher with the STUC, speaking for the Yes side. She poured scorn on hundreds of years of ‘wrong-doing’ by British elites .
Today people were ‘sick and tired of Westminster politics’. But perhaps this was a wish rather than reality: ‘people still need to find the confidence’ to strike out in a new progressive path.
Apparently ‘people all over the world are with us in wishing to see the break-up of Britain’. But after a pause she could only offer as concrete examples revolutionaries in Spain who wished to dismember that country.
For this senior trade-union figure, Gaza and Iraq were absolutely vital issues. So much so that she had no time left to show how her members could be protected if Mr Salmond’s plans for a big public sector collapsed like a house of cards because of the fantasy economics that lay behind it.
The other Better Together speaker, Labour councillor Frank McAveety, injected much-needed realism.
In response to a question from an undecided member of the audience, he pointed out how implacable the SNP was in pursuing citizens who were indebted to the state in Scotland. He pointed to an outstanding social reformer like the former miner from Baillieston, John Wheatley, minister of housing in the fist labour government.
His message was plain: Labour governments had been instrumental in enabling generations of Scots to emerge from poverty. For many the skills and talents which they harnessed through education, made a huge difference for themselves and their communities.
For all its talk of compassion, the SNP had no anti-poverty agenda; if its dreamy plans backfired economically, the likelihood was that the Nationalists would turn their backs on the very people whose votes they were so desperate to attract before 18 September.
The most intriguing speaker was Glasgow SNP councillor Feargal Dalton. This amiable and eloquent Dubliner has been a key campaigner for the Yes side in Glasgow’s housing schemes and inner city areas. This ex-submariner with the British navy gave Ireland far more attention than the other speakers.
But he talked in maudlin anti-imperialist terms. His own family’s role in nationalist struggles and building up the Irish state was underscored.
Instead of quietly extolling the British Navy for finding a place for an Irish ‘rebel’ in its submarine fleet, he denounced members of the officer class and the navy’s historical role.
He claimed that the British forces were so unpopular across so much of the world that they were disqualified from being UN peace-keepers.
Humza Yousaf, currently the SNP government’s world ambassador was hailed as a ‘friend’ and his recent melodramatic declaration that Gazan civilians were welcome in Scotland, was roundly approved by Councillor Dalton.
On a day of much coverage in the Scottish media of the impact of people-trafficking, organized by East European gangs, on Scotland’s streets , he sternly warned against any criticism of immigration.
He meant of course the SNP’s hairbrained scheme to attract up to 24,000 immigrants annually, supposedly to fill labour shortages and fill shrinking tax coffers.
I wondered if I was watching the birth a new Ken Livingstone, a Clydeside radical intent on pursuing top-down multiculturalism despite the havoc it had given rise to in London.
But I got some comfort from the fact that this referendum event was so sparsely attended. Much of the Glasgow ‘Irish’ were at Mass, enjoying lunch, or relaxing in some other way.
So the revolution would simply have to start without them.
Tom Gallagher taught politics â€“ related subjects at Bradford Universityâ€™s the Department of Peace Studies from 1980 to 2011, specialising on identity conflicts in Europe and ways of managing them. He has written widely on the Balkans as well as several books on Scotland.
He is currently researching civil wars and averted conflicts in Western Europe and North America and what they reveal about the growing internal cleavages in England and their possible outcome.