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The troubling prospect of a poll on the North

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Piper Anton Doherty plays to passers-by in front of the Houses of Parliament on Westminster Bridge in London

Piper Anton Doherty plays to passers-by in front of the Houses of Parliament on Westminster Bridge in London

REUTERS

Piper Anton Doherty plays to passers-by in front of the Houses of Parliament on Westminster Bridge in London

Nowhere outside Scotland will the results of that country's referendum be scrutinised more intensely today than in Northern Ireland.

The English, aside from the emotional David Cameron, will read them with their customary phlegmatic indifference. The Welsh? Alas, almost nobody cares about the Welsh.

You might say that nobody who can avoid the subject cares about the North. But everybody who looks at the context should care.

If the Scots have voted for independence, they will have diminished the status of the United Kingdom, still a country of world importance and still sentimentally attached to the memory of an empire that once ruled the seas. And they will have raised a question about the future of England's remaining two appendages, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If instead they have voted No by a narrow majority, they will have decided nothing.

The impetus for independence will remain; it will probably grow. By now, it may be unstoppable.

Is there a third scenario?

Could the Scots decide to regard "devo-max", increased powers for their parliament in Edinburgh, as sufficient reward for rejecting independence?

We in this Republic ought to know the answer. Almost a century ago, we got a large measure of independence. At the same time the Northern unionists got, in the words of the Rev J B Armour, a form of home rule "that the devil himself could not have invented".

We would go on to turn limited independence into full sovereignty. But the Northern settlement did not work, then or since.

One attempt to make it work, or at least to lay some groundwork, was the ill-named and ill-devised "border poll" of 1973. Voters were asked to decide between remaining in the United Kingdom or joining a united Ireland. Nationalists boycotted the poll, and the UK option was endorsed by a huge majority.

After a whole generation of violence, a new settlement was accepted by both parts of Ireland. Sadly, this one too has come close to failure. The Northern First Minister, Peter Robinson, has admitted that the administration set up under it is not "fit for purpose".

This is music to the ears of Sinn Fein, a party as opportunistic as it is cynical. And more music will sound in its ears today with its argument for another poll in Northern Ireland.

The argument is deeply flawed in two ways. First, such a poll would ask a totally different question.

Secondly, Sinn Fein misunderstands the demographics on which it relies, and misunderstands the Catholic middle class.

But Sinn Fein can cause serious instability by demanding a vote in the face of British reluctance to permit one.

Could there be trouble in Scotland too?

We can find part of the answer by looking at the reasons why opinion shifted during the campaign from an overwhelming No to something close to 50-50.

Obviously, the key reason is the failure of the pro-union campaigners to make their case. Instead of sticking to the safe economic and pragmatic ground, they engaged in ridiculous sentimentality.

Gordon Brown could not define "Britishness".

For most people, that means Englishness. David Cameron recalled past "British" glories, real and imagined. Again, most people think of them as English glories.

Cameron seemed to imagine that the pro-union side would win easily, only to panic when the opinion polls swung against him.

He cannot have enjoyed the knowledge that his allies included the Orange Order, an organisation as irrelevant to the present day as the Battle of Bannockburn.

Meanwhile, our own Government did and said exactly the right thing, namely, nothing.

It is far and away the best policy - for the time being. A time may come when a Dublin government has to concern itself with Northern Ireland's troublesome affairs once again.

Governments farther afield, too, may have grounds for nervousness. Often their boundaries have been imposed by sovereign nations.

How should these matters be decided? By popular vote. But nobody should have to vote without knowing the likely consequences.

Without knowing how many other tricky issues may arise, or what damage these issues may inflict on their economy.

If Scotland - or Catalonia - wants independence, should it have independence? Of course.

How should the matter be decided? By popular vote.

But nobody should have to vote without knowing the likely consequences.

If the Scots have voted Yes, they have done so without knowing whether they can share England's currency or on what conditions they may remain in the European Union.

Without knowing how many other tricky issues may arise, or what damage these issues may inflict on their economy.

They should have been settled before the referendum, not after.

Irish Independent