Scottish Independence: Could It Be A 'Ticking Time Bomb' For Northern Ireland?


Resurfacing 'old demons'. 'A ticking time bomb'.

People have made stark predictions of what Scottish independence could mean for Northern Ireland, a place that is haunted by a history of violence, well within living memory.

The strong connection between Scotland and Northern Ireland dates back to the "Ulster Plantation" in the 17th century, when protestant Scots were encouraged to settle in Ulster to pacify what was then the most rebellious part of Ireland.

Since September's referendum was announced, predictions from commentators and politicians about the fallout for Northern Ireland have included - a return to the violence of the dark days, growing political isolation from the rest of the UK and a redoubled bid by Republicans to finally create a united Ireland.

But is this the feeling on the ground? In a country where the most popular politicians are all defined by whether they are pro or anti-union, are angry, dramatic predictions about a 'yes' vote overstated?

Some of the keenest observers of Northern Irish politics have given their predictions — and their answers might surprise you.

Protesters demonstrating against a decision to stop flying the Union Jack every day from Belfast City Council offices

Ian Paisley Junior MP, who, like many Unionists in Northern Ireland including First Minister Peter Robinson, is of Scottish descent, has warned a yes vote would "get the tails up" of Irish Republicans and be "unnerving".

The Democratic Unionist told the House of Commons: "It would drive another wedge into the hearts and souls of people in Ulster."

After the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the people of Northern Ireland lived in relative peace under the power-sharing setup that saw Sinn Fein - which has been accused of having ties with the IRA - join the province's government with the unionists they had previously fought with.

But reminders of the old days persist.

Nationalist and Loyalist murals are a reminder of Northern Ireland's recent past

Lord Robertson, the former Labour MP and shadow Northern Ireland secretary, has warned Scottish independence could mean "a reappearance of old demons" in the province.

The most alarming prediction comes from Crispin Black, an ex-army officer turned security commentator, who said those who "remain militant" would use it as an opportunity, describing the issue as "a ticking time bomb".

"For those who still dream of a 32-county Ireland, it will be a time of opportunity. Even if the main Republican leaders have been domesticated into subsidised members of the guild of professional politicians, many of their supporters remain militant," he wrote in The Week.

"A little rioting, a few bombs across the Province, maybe the threat of an attack on London, and the English government would be confronted with the difficult decision - do we send an army once again to Northern Ireland to keep the peace?"

Sinn Fein has always been committed in principle to a united Ireland, which would mean removing Northern Ireland from the UK.

Its President, Gerry Adams, has said independence is "a matter for the people of Scotland" and pledged to keep his party out of the debate.

But he also said the UK is "hanging from a thread" and hinted a yes vote would be an opportunity to change the status quo in Northern Ireland.

The former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Lord Trimble, has predicted Scottish independence would turn a vote on whether there should be a united Ireland from a "non-issue" to a "major issue".

Appearing on The Sunday Politics Show in May, he said: "I think the situation in Northern Ireland is stable. It's had its ups and downs but it's stable.

"The only thing on the horizon that I see that could cause a serious problem with that stability is the referendum in Scotland."

He added: "It's going to change the political context of Northern Ireland. That would cause strains. What's now a non-issue, would become a major issue. It would be divisive, obviously."

Dr Graham Walker, a Scot who has lived in Northern Ireland for 20 years and teaches politics at Queen's University Belfast, said that a yes vote could cause Sinn Fein to up its efforts and push for a "border poll" - a referendum on whether to stay British or join Ireland.

He said that he would expect a yes vote to cause "a crisis" among Unionists, who could feel acutely the loss of the part of the UK they feel "understands them best".

Central to this, he adds, would be working class Unionists who feel alienated by the years of peace and have begun to feel they are not gaining from it.

This group was a key force behind a series of appalling, violent demonstrations in Belfast, triggered in 2012 when the City Council voted to stop flying the Union Jack every day of the year.

The Belfast flag protests in pictures

Union Flag protests

The Belfast Flag Protests

The demonstrations - which continued throughout 2013 - have seen more than 100 police officers injured and water cannon used on the crowds.

Dr Walker told HuffPost UK: "For some time now, there has been a Loyalist working class narrative of not having gained from the peace process and having been marginalised.

"The flags issue was woven into this narrative and the situation now looks bleak regarding the task of persuading such people that the political channels can work for them as well, and that notions of a shared future should not be seen as threatening to anyone’s identity."

When asked what would happen if Scotland left, Dr Walker said: "They would be likely to feel even more beleaguered, and would possibly be united in resentment with the Loyalist constituency in the west of Scotland who are currently being sidelined from the No campaign.

"Both in Ulster and Scotland, there is a narrative of 'our culture is under attack'.

"Unionist leaders in Ulster don't seem able to instil confidence about the future in their own community and this would be made even more difficult if Scotland goes its own way."

A bus burns during a violent protest in Belfast by Loyalists against the decision to cut the number of days the British flag will fly from city hall

A referendum on constitutional change to Northern Ireland could be difficult to call when support for change remains low.

The most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, an annual look at the province's political mood, found only 15% favour a united Ireland.

The power to call such a poll rests with the Northern Ireland secretary, who can call one at any time but "shall" arrange one if there is evidence a majority of people want to join Ireland, the Northern Ireland Act says.

Northern Ireland first came into existence as a protestant-majority province, staying with the UK while the rest of Catholic majority Ireland left it.

Over the decades, the demographic balance has become "pretty even", Dr Walker says, but there's a growing "pragmatic acceptance" among Catholics and Nationalists that staying in Britain is good for them.

He added: "There's a pragmatic acceptance among a number of the Nationalists that they could remain in the UK. Whether Scotland going independent might change people's minds, that remains to be seen."

If Scotland goes, where does he think Northern Ireland will be in 20 years? "Still in the UK," Dr Walker says. "If enough of the Nationalist community can be persuaded it's in their interests."

Journalist and commentator Mick Fealty thinks Crispin Black's bleak predictions of violence are wrong.

Fealty, who edits the province's premier political blog Slugger O'Toole, told HuffPost UK he saw no prospect of a return to violence "in the short term".

He said: "Sinn Fein is not going to go back to war. They have the popular will. They have more power and control than they ever did before. Any return to war would endanger those and future gains.

"The people who fought the war and the people who fought against that war are in government together. They hate each other but they also need each other."

After years as outsiders, Sinn Fein are now major stakeholders in the status quo

He said he doubted Unionists would actually be bereft if Scotland went independent, adding their cultural attachment to the country was strong enough to survive Scottish independence.

He added: "If they've have been calling their sons Ross and Alistair for 400 years, will a change to the constitution change that? I just can't see it."

Fealty added the protestants in Northern Ireland's attachment to the UK was often expressed through its Protestant monarchy and Scotland, if it becomes independent, plans to keep the British monarch as head of state.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt - another Scottish name - who is a member of the province's legislative assembly (MLA), told HuffPost UK that, though there was "a lot of fear" among Unionists of a 'yes' vote in September, it was "fear of fear itself".

He agreed with Fealty, that the historic connection with Scotland would persist if the country went independent.

"Every weekend, you have ferries from Northern Ireland, full of Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic supporters heading off to matches and that's not going to change," he added.

Nesbitt said there should be a "more mature, political debate about Scottish independence and what it means for Northern Ireland".

He added he regards the Scottish referendum as "an opportunity" for more devolution of power to Northern Ireland, whatever the outcome.

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