Monday 9 December 2019

Scottish Yes vote holds no fear for North's Unionists

Sinn Fein in Dublin is more of a threat to the status of the North than Scottish secession

Danny Morrison
Danny Morrison

John-Paul McCarthy

At the height of the great Victorian debate about extending the franchise, the hard man of Anglo-Irish letters, James Anthony Froude got off a good line. The problem with mass democracy, he explained, was that it was "a system under which St Paul and Judas Iscariot would each have an equal vote, and one would have as much power as the other." This cast of mind came badly undone in the next century, but for all its crudity, Froude touched on something eternal.

His insight hangs over the dramatic climax of the Scottish referendum on independence. Alex Salmond has sought to channel something of the apostle's polemical skills. And like Paul, he too is surrounded by a legion of Highland Judases, those Scots like George Galloway, and Gordon Brown who are resolutely not for converting. Froude's prejudice also spoke to the problem of standards in mass democracies, that is to say, the tendency towards the lowest common denominator.

This referendum has generated some fairly extraordinary arguments. Some on the pro-independence side genuinely see secession as one in the eye for Mrs Thatcher, even though she surrendered the crown twenty-four years ago. Other Scottish nationalists see it as a form of vengeance for Tony Blair's Iraq policy, as if seceding into a new state that does not have a proper currency will somehow vindicate the Geneva Conventions.

Those on the unionist side, then, have claimed that an independent Scotland will derange the Nato alliance and make it harder to deal with Putin. These feeble interventions compare badly with the last great secessionist debate of our time, namely Pierre Elliott Trudeau's clinical demolition of Quebec nationalism in 1980 through a combination of idealism and guile. Unlike the isolated Tory-Lib Dem coalition in London that routinely invokes financial apocalypse, Prime Minister Trudeau famously told his fellow French-Canadians that they could leave Canada if they wished, but if they did, they would be playing into the hands of the cranks who insisted that ethnic diversity forever precluded cohabitation, and for this, they would be arraigned for "a crime against the history of mankind".

We have not been immune here to the lowering quality of the Scottish argument either. Though the major parties in Northern Ireland have not formally intervened in the referendum, its tremors have been felt all the time. The former Sinn Fein PRO Danny Morrison gave a fascinating interview to one of the Scottish papers. He did not believe that Scottish secession brought Irish unity any closer, but he did think that it would press down on unionism. "Unionists will see that if one part can cut away from the UK, then another part can do likewise. A Yes vote would be demoralising for Unionists and increase their fragility. They've already subscribed to majority rule, but appreciate they don't have the status of Yorkshire and the future of the north isn't written in stone. But I don't believe a Yes vote substantially alters our prospects. It would certainly have a greater effect on Unionist morale than a positive effect for Republicans."

In keeping with that curious circularity that has characterised "advanced" Irish nationalism since Froude's time, this analysis was really a way of using Scotland to amplify some of the arguments made decades ago by people like the poet Thomas Kinsella who wrote about unionism's "mediocrity, due to the exodus of its best intelligences".

Eamonn McCann also touched on Scotland in The Irish Times last week, if only to draw a contrast between the British Government's panic over Scottish secession and its supposed indifference to the long-term fate of Northern Ireland. If Morrison was channelling older indictments of unionist culture, then McCann's analysis reached back to some of the debates of the Haughey-FitzGerald era. Admirers of Sean O Mordha's powerful documentary on the history of the State will recall Dr. FitzGerald's story about the immediate aftermath of his signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Mrs Thatcher. Both prime ministers retired for a glass of champagne, and FitzGerald mentioned in passing that since an EU meeting on structural funds was about to start, perhaps they could both instruct their ambassadors to use the occasion to drum up more funds for Northern Ireland. Mrs Thatcher apparently looked at him aghast. "More money for these people?", she asked. "Certainly not. I need that money for my people." FitzGerald rather primly concluded that this proved she was an English nationalist and not a unionist at all. And if even her unionism was hollow, then . . .

None of these elderly arguments make a united Ireland any more natural, logical or inevitable than in 1920 though. Unionism still has more to fear from a Sinn Fein Dublin than a Sinn Fein Scotland.


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