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Scotland: a nation now tottering on a knife edge

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Scotland votes on independence next Thursday

Scotland votes on independence next Thursday

Rival campaigners shout the odds on an Edinburgh street

Rival campaigners shout the odds on an Edinburgh street

REUTERS

Kim Bielenberg (back, right) on the trail with the Yes campaign in Glasgow

Kim Bielenberg (back, right) on the trail with the Yes campaign in Glasgow

Campaigners for a Yes vote

Campaigners for a Yes vote

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Reuters

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Scotland votes on independence next Thursday

Kim Bielenberg reports from a nation swept up in a fever of excitement as it steels itself to vote in a referendum that could sever its link with mother Britain. Will it vote with its head or its heart?

Just a decade ago Dubliner Feargal Dalton was a weapons engineer in the Royal Navy in Scotland. He had his finger on the nuclear button. Now he is an ardent campaigner for an independent Scotland.

The UCD graduate is one of a growing number of people with Irish backgrounds who are spearheading plans to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

Until last weekend, Feargal's dream of a new separate state was still an outside bet for success. But the referendum polls in the past few days, swinging between yes and no, sent tingles up the spine across the Clyde and over the Firth of Forth.

Next Thursday, when Scotland votes, we could see the beginning of the break-up of Britain, as we have known it since Ireland became a republic.

Seldom has the British establishment's psyche been in such a state of shock, having previously showed a complacent belief that the union would last forever.

Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, described it as a "sleepwalk to tragedy". Another advocate of the union recalled the sensation felt by a Czech when his country no longer included Slovakia: "It feels like an amputation."

If yes wins, which still seems the less likely result, we may not know what the implications for Ireland will be for 20 years.

Most likely it will mean another friend at the table of EU summits (assuming that the Scots are let in ).

If Scotland becomes independent it could lead to a renewed stirring up of emotions in the North; and vigorous new Celtic competitors, the Scots, wooing foreign direct investors with lower corporate taxes.

On the streets of Glasgow, where I joined a canvass with Feargal Dalton, there was a rush of excitement through the Yes campaign.

"The polls have definitely caused a buzz, but it is still all to play for," said Feargal. "It seems to be mostly yes in Glasgow."

An Independent Scotland is within touching distance, and if the vote is passed, there will be a myriad of practicalities to sort out.

Will this state be allowed to keep the pound? Will it join the EU? Will the queen be head of state, and Prince Charles continue to look preposterous in a kilt at the Highland Games?

Feargal Dalton looks forward with relish to the rebirth of Scotland as an independent country.

After emigrating from Ireland he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, working on nuclear submarines. He stepped down from the armed forces in 2010 and has since become a school Physics teacher in Glasgow. Now he wants to remove his former employers in the British navy from the country.

He looks forward to Scotland setting up its own defence forces.

The submarines carrying the UK's Trident nuclear warheads currently sit along a secluded shore at Faslane in the southern highlands and are protected by a wall of reinforced fencing and razorwire.

The Scottish Nationalists are committed to moving them within four years.

Feargal says, "I am not keen on the whole idea of nuclear weapons, and it was one of the reasons why I left the navy.

"An independent Scotland will go down a different path, and have no need of a nuclear deterrent. However the Scottish defence forces will be based at Faslane."

Feargal is involved with a group know as Irish for Yes, and this weekend they are due to hand out 25,000 pro-independence leaflets at Celtic's home match in Glasgow.

In recent years, those with an Irish Catholic background in Scotland have become the strongest supporters of an independent state.

The eminent Scottish historian, Sir Tom Devine, told Weekend Review this was a total transformation since the 1960s. At that time the Irish were often part of an underclass living in deprived areas suffering sectarian taunts, and still identified themselves as Irish.

"Recently the Irish in Scotland have been more upwardly mobile and they have felt more comfortable in their Scottish skins," Sir Tom said.

"Increasingly those with an Irish Catholic background are in influential positions of power. For example the heads of five universities in Scotland are Catholic.

"I think that the Irish community finds it easier to identify with Scottishness rather than Britishness, because of the imperial trappings."

The sectarian divisions of Glasgow have also diminished. Feargal Dalton believes the Irish have grown in confidence.

As he chats affably to voters in the Glasgow suburb of Anniesland, Feargal Dalton says: "Unless they go around singing IRA songs people love the Irish here."

The Scots Irish may be more prominent in the yes campaign, but it would be wrong to suggest that there will not be large numbers of Irish people who vote no.

When I showed up for a canvass for the Better Together campaign, which wants to keep in Scotland in the United Kingdom, I found that three of the five activists had Irish backgrounds.

Local student Rory O'Sullivan, whose parents moved to Glasgow from Ireland, told me: "To me an independent Scotalnd is a huge risk. Why do we want to fix something when it is not broken?

"My mother is a lecturer and my dad is a doctor. I feel that the economy is likely to be better if we stay in the United Kingdom, and I worry about what will happen to mortgages and pensions."

Among some voters the inclination towards independence is driven by politics - and a hatred of the Tories - as much any patriotic fervour.

Time and time again on the doorsteps, I heard voters saying Scotland does for the Conservatives - and yet has to live under Tory governments.

Critics of this state of affairs like to point out there are more pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs.

Sir Tom Devine says: "The Scottish parliament has demonstrated competent government and it represents a Scottish people who are wedded to a social democratic agenda.

"It is the Scots who have succeeded most in preserving the British idea of fairness and compassion in terms of state support and intervention. Ironically, it is England, since the 1980s, which has embarked on a separate journey."

The academic, who had four Irish grand-parents, believes the three century union of England and Scotland has not been a marriage based on love. It was originally a marriage of convenience. Now, it has run its course in terms of usefulness.

However, when it came to the royal family, I did find that there is a lingering affection in many places. A woman in a teashop on the banks of Loch Lomond was firmly in the no camp. "I adore the queen," she said. "What will happen to her?"

On Edinburgh's elegant Georgian streets, the no voices were louder.

There are more royalist trappings than in Glasgow. The queen's husband is Duke of Edinburgh, after all; there is a palace at Hollyrood; and one of the city's biggest tourist attractions is The Royal Yacht Britannia, moored at the Ocean Terminal.

The sniff of a Yes vote has already caused financial troubles - with the fall in the pound, and the announcement by Lloyds Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland that they will move their headquarters away if the country votes yes.

No voters tend not have stickers in their windows or on their cars, but in the quiet of the polling booth they will deliver their message. The no side has stoked fears of financial instability, but the First Minister Alex Salmond has already signalled that hard-headed economics is likely to replace dewy-eyed patriotism quickly in any independent state.

There are genuine fears that Salmond's plan to cut corporation tax by 3 pc in Scotland could woo investors who might otherwise choose Ireland. In this scenario the Irish would would be replaced by the Scots as the cuddly tax-friendly Celts of choice.

David Bell from Stirling University has said corporate taxes will drop but attracting business is not just about these rates. "It's about skills and infrastucture. There's not much difference in terms of infrastructure but Scotland probably has better universities at the top end, so we would have to see see over the long term what the impact might be."

By the middle of this week the polls seemed to be swinging back towards no as the public contemplated the reality of a break-up of the Britain. However, Scotland seems to be edging towards greater independence, whatever the outcome of next week's poll, and the implications for the rest of Britain and Ireland are huge.

Indo Review