Monday 24 June 2019

My case for a 'Celtic Fringe' of Ireland, the North and Scotland

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, then-deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness and Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales, during a British-Irish Council Summit meeting in Glasgow last year: Photo: PA
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, then-deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness and Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales, during a British-Irish Council Summit meeting in Glasgow last year: Photo: PA

James Dornan

'You're living in a north Down bubble." That's what one of my friends said when he heard my idea for the post-Brexit world - a new dispensation for the Celtic Fringe; a new 'Dalriada'.

I can see his point. He is right to say that the majority of voters in Northern Ireland realise that they voted to stay in Europe, but must go with the majority in the UK, that they think most of our local politicians are a shower, but that's the way it is, and they are happy to throw their hands in the air in despair at the idea that they could change anything.

But that was until 2016 changed everything in front of our eyes. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the States, lots of people are asking: "Why can't we come out of our bubble and if we can get a majority to agree with us, we, the people, can tell the politicians the way forward rather than vice versa?"

Outside my bubble of a few who think like me in north Down, I am suggesting that, if argued carefully, we should promote the case for a new Dál Riata union made up of the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and Scotland (I accept that the original Dál Riata was just the west of Scotland and Co Antrim).

The Republic may not see the North as an attractive addition with its head, but it still does with its heart.

They have strong links with the Scots, and they like First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon. Northerners are divided in their hearts, with many proclaiming allegiance to the United Kingdom, but interestingly, perhaps primarily to the Scottish third of it.

Scotland has long considered severing its ties with England and Wales but has a huge affection for both parts of Ireland, and the nationalists are finding it difficult to get 'over the line' and achieve independence.

The key fact is that all three countries have voted to remain in Europe; two via the Brexit referendum and the other in treaty referendums, despite a few hiccups.

The problem in Ireland is that the foundation stones of all the main parties are based on the Border - which, ironically, has been all but replaced by a fabulous new motorway 'twixt North and South.

Northern Ireland's existence depends on the will of a majority of its hearts, which could change in a decade; even if its heads are saying otherwise at present. It therefore seems short-sighted to be constantly trying to poke the other side in the eye. If the balance swings, be sure that for both sides, "old sins will have long shadows".

Like so many here, I do feel very disenfranchised by the current situation. We truly believed that, this far into the peace, our politicians would have matured into the process for which we believed we had voted. The people in general seem to have moved on, but have left the folks on the Stormont hill still fighting the war. More than sad - tragic.

In the Republic, the founding principles of the two main parties depend on whether you think Michael Collins was correct in 1922 to accept the 26 counties, or whether he should have hung in for the whole 32.

I recently found myself on a long plane journey sitting between senior officials from each of the two parties. By the time we reached our destination, they were in full disagreement as to which was more left of centre. That tells you all you need to know.

The statistics tell their own story. At the last Northern election, with a 54pc turnout, the DUP got 29.2pc and the Ulster Unionists 12.6pc, which is 42pc of those who voted. That's only 23pc of the population eligible to vote.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP between them got 36pc of the vote, which is 19pc of the adult population.

At the time of the 'Ulster says Yes' referendum campaign on the peace agreement, the turnout was 74pc.

It would appear there is a 20pc 'sleeping' vote which could be minded to turn out to vote if they thought any good could come of it.

I would also suggest that the DUP and Sinn Féin probably get their maximum possible vote at each election, with neither having many sleeping voters.

When the Republic had its recent gay marriage referendum, I was truly elated and invigorated as I watched the results coming in. I felt that this was Ireland telling the establishment: "It's time to grow up. It's time to leave the baggage of the past. It's time to think of the individual. It's our time."

Since the Scottish nationalist vote, all bets are off as to the relationships between the states and statelets of these isles. Many lessons have hopefully been noted, if not actually learned.

Our populations can be fired up by new propositions and relationships without a gun being put to their heads. Federal solutions, linkages with Europe, a commonwealth between ourselves can all be reconsidered. A future of three countries in one could be the answer.

Economically it would be challenging. Two of the three components, Northern Ireland and Scotland, are used to being subsidised by England - for good historical reasons. Those subsidies would go, but in return I believe the European community would welcome us staying as members.

As the only English-speaking country in the EU - with a significant population of 10 million - we would be a magnet to many sectors, including the financial one which is increasingly precariously hanging on in London.

I believe the Celtic Fringe could, given the chance, rise to the occasion. The big question is not "Would all the political parties in the three countries agree?", rather, "Would 51pc of their people?" For we have the ultimate power.

Professor James Dornan holds the chair in Health & Life Sciences at the Ulster University and is Emeritus Professor in Foetal Medicine at Queen's University Belfast

Irish Independent

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