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Lesson from Irish history: Why our Celtic neighbours should take the same leap of faith


The Irish delegation at the signing of the Treaty in London

The Irish delegation at the signing of the Treaty in London

Getty Images

Michael Collins

Michael Collins

Getty Images


The Irish delegation at the signing of the Treaty in London

No matter what the outcome of the Scottish referendum next week, be it a victory for 'Yes' or 'No,' the United Kingdom is never going to be the same again.

It is quite evident, with a few days to go to polling, that the British government has made no contingency arrangements to accommodate a vote for independence.

There was always an inherent danger for the British government in agreeing to a referendum on Scottish independence confident solely in the belief that it would only have one outcome, a 'no' in favour of the status quo.

Such self-assured hubris among the Conservative, Unionist Party and Liberal Democrat leaders is rooted in an approach to politics based on the unshakeable belief that a combination of fear and heavy-handed public relations campaigning would stampede Scottish voters into submission. Now, the fat is in the fire, and the unthinkable has become possible - a victory for the 'yes' side and for independence.

In this country, I can recall two examples of a similar high-handed government approach; hubris drove the government European referenda on the treaties of Nice (2001/2) and Lisbon (2008). So defective and arrogant were the government campaigns that Ireland had to vote twice in order to get the treaties through. Scotland, however, will not get a second chance to vote for independence for aeons to come. As polling day approaches, how many people will agonise over not wanting to miss a unique historical opportunity. It is now or never for this generation and for posterity.

Despite what 'focus groups' and private polls may have been telling the British government, the roots of a pro-European Union Scottish nationalism run very deep and that is now manifest in the last week before the referendum. Here is a classic case, replicated in Ireland in 1918/1922, of offering too little too late to the people of Scotland.

Many of the 'no' arguments in the referendum are challenged by the ever-present elephant in the room - the most uncomfortable precedent of a successful and proudly independence country on the neighbouring island. Promised Home Rule for many decades, Irish nationalists, during World War One, saw the British government whittle away what had been offered in the Act. A constitutional convention in 1917 and early 1918 further recommended a dilution of what had been passed into law regarding financial autonomy. [A few years later partition also would be a reality.]

Little wonder that Sinn Féin used the British general election of December 1918 as a plebiscite to win a mandate to secede from Westminster and to establish Dáil Éireann.

When the British government today speaks about the dangers of independence for Scotland, many of the arguments ring hollow by reference to the recent history of Ireland; Minus the six counties, Ireland was an independent dominion by 1922 which quickly developed its own autonomous foreign policy and membership of multilateral organisations.

Despite a civil war, Ireland became nomically viable and had its own currency - as an independent Scotland would have - linked to Sterling, a link which lasted in Ireland until 1978, with the Irish Central Bank being set up on February 1, 1943.

It would simply not be economically viable - or politically desirable - for a British government to prevent Scotland from continuing to use the pound, or their equivalent of the punt, no matter what is being now said by senior Conservative politicians and, injudiciously, by the Bank of England. Should Scotland become independent, it would be interesting to speculate on should or how would United Kingdom reserves be divided up. After all, the reserves are common property.

The new Irish state in 1922 swiftly developed its own national army and air corps. The founding of the Irish Navy did not come until after World War Two.

In 2014, unilateralism may be more problematical for an independent Scotland.

Developing a common defence strategy for the island of Britain would not - in the light of the policy aspirations of the EU - be an insuperable barrier.

Quitting NATO may make such a common defence policy more of a challenge but again not an insuperable one.

When, under duress, the British government allowed a piece of the United Kingdom to break away in 1922, they set a constitutional precedent. The people of Scotland have an opportunity to vote next week on measure which will deliver the same result as Ireland achieved but, in the latter case, only after a revolution, a war of independence and a civil war. North Sea oil reserves would place Scotland today in a much stronger economic position than was post-civil-war-Ireland. Yet Ireland survived and thrived.

The successful history of Ireland as an independent state over the past 90 years serves as both a cautionary tale and a role model for an independent Scotland.

But, on balance, the Irish precedent is a very strong argument in favour of a 'yes' vote.

Scotland, is leading the way for the Catalans, the Basques and Belgians, some of whom wish to have the same opportunity to vote for autonomy. The European Union, contrary to the personal opinion of the outgoing Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, will have no alternative but to allow Scotland to continue its membership of the EU in its new constitutional form.

In the final week of the referendum campaign, Scotland is currently enjoying the reverse of what was the Irish historical experience. Home Rule became more and more meaningless as the then British government reneged on its original legislation. As the opinion polls swung in favour of the 'yes' side, the British government is now 'love-bombing' Scotland, finding all kinds of new inducements to keep her in the union.

The Irish historical experience would counsel caution. The referendum is a unique opportunity to gain independence without having to take the risk of facing down the uncertain path of greater freedom through increments. It is now or practically never for the achievement of Scottish independence.

Given the opportunity afforded to anyone eligible over the age of 16 to vote, the widened electorate introduces a new sense of concern for those opposed to Scottish independence south of the border. I don't think that this vote for the over 16 is quite the same as women having the franchise for the first time in the 1918 general election which swept Sinn Féin to power. But, as in 1918, the enlarged electorate may tilt the advantage more in favour of a 'yes' vote.

Whatever the answer by the electorate, realpolitik will accommodate the change. Ultimately, a 'yes' vote, rather than 'break up' the United Kingdom, may well contribute to its greater long-term political and economic stability, notwithstanding the constitutional conundrums which an independent Scotland will pose for the British government, the European Union and other international organisations.

Dr Dermot Keogh is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and emeritus Professor of History, UCC

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