Analysis

Thursday 24 July 2014

Scots Catholics of Irish descent no longer live in fear of independence

Gerard O’Regan

Published 21/02/2014|02:30

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Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond during Question Time at the Scottish parliament, Edinburgh. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday February 20, 2014. See PA story SCOTLAND Questions. Photo credit should read: Dave Cheskin/PA Wire
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, and driving force behind the pro-independence movement. PA

'Skye got their preparations for the new season off to an encouraging start, with a 2-0 victory over Beauly, in Saturday's Thomas Ferguson Memorial Cup match in Portree.

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"For Skye, John MacLeod had to do without Kenny Campbell and Neil MacVicar, while Roger Cormack's Beauly travelled west without Dougie Blain, Scott MacLeod, and Sean Stewart.''

These are indeed some flavourful sentences, reflecting the musicality of Scottish surnames, as part of a shinty match report, in the current edition of the 'West Highland Free Press'. In September, the Campbells, the McVicars, and the MacLeods, will have an opportunity to vote in an historic referendum which would allow Scotland become an independent country, cutting the umbilical cord which has tied it to England, London, and Westminster, for so long.

So what will they decide in what will be the most crucial vote of their lives? One would think that up in this part of Scotland the drive for independence should be at its strongest. But the polls, in what is becoming an extremely divisive referendum campaign, continue to send out contradictory signals.

The current population of Scotland is around five million, comprising an estimated 850,000 Catholics – the majority of whom are of Irish descent.

In the past this grouping has been less than enthusiastic about total independence. They feared it would make them very much a minority, in a state that would not have any of the checks and balances emanating from a Westminster government.

But attitudes have changed significantly in recent years. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, and driving force behind the pro-independence movement, now regards this "Catholic Irish'' bloc as a crucial "swing constituency'' in the run-in to the referendum vote.

While various cultural differences between Catholic and Protestant remain – classically reflected in support for either Celtic or Rangers football club – religious practice in Scotland has been in sharp decline since the 1960s. One result, from a voting viewpoint, is that those who strictly classify themselves as Church of Scotland or Presbyterian are on average older than the population at large. As such, they are likely to be conservative in their outlook, and therefore opposed to independence. In contrast the Catholic vote is a part of the electorate very much up for grabs.

Both British prime minister David Cameron and the Scottish-born former leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown, have recently entered the fray, with strongly worded appeals to the Scots to stay in the Union. Cameron was almost emotional when he spoke of the successes of 'Team GB' in events like the Winter Olympics. He also referred to "bloodlines'' which he insists bond England and Scotland together.

"My surname goes back to the West Highlands, and by the way, I am as proud of my Scottish heritage as I am of my English heritage,'' he insisted. Meanwhile, Brown claimed a vote for independence would mean citizens of the new state would no longer have an entitlement to a British state pension.

THIS may be just the kind of rhetoric that will increasingly sway floating voters the nearer decision day arrives. European commission president Jose Manuel Barroso upped the ante still further this week, when he questioned whether an independent Scotland could join the EU. The official stance of the Irish government has been to stay strictly neutral in what is certain to become an increasingly bitter debate. But all things being equal, it would seem a no vote in the referendum is the preferred option.

One practical reason for this is that an independent Scotland would become a major competitor for the Republic of Ireland in the battle to attract foreign industry. SNP leader Alex Salmond said a Scottish government would introduce a low corporation tax to compete with ours.

The 'West Highland Free Press' has its offices on the Isle of Skye, and as befits its location, the Scots Gaelic refrain under its masthead reads: "An Tir, an Canan 'sna Daoine – The Land, the Language, the People".

But it seems that come voting day it won't be considerations of a language now fighting for its very survival – or indeed travails on the shinty pitch – which will decide whether the Scots really do cut that umbilical cord.

Rather it will be the future of the pound or the euro in an independent Scotland – and how this will impact on living standards.

If we are to believe popular mythology, the Scots generally speaking are canny with their cash. So when it comes to decision time, money matters will surely suggest for a majority of the population, the risk of separation is too great.

On that basis – apart altogether from the vagaries of current opinion polls – the referendum is likely to be lost.

Irish Independent

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