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N Ireland frets at Scotland independence vote

Referendum to be held later this year could have major effects on nearby Northern Ireland.

Last updated: 21 Feb 2014 09:22
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British Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Scots to vote 'no' to independence [AFP/Getty Images]

Belfast, Northern Ireland - A tattered Saltire, Scotland's national flag, hangs limply from a lamppost in East Belfast. A little further down the street, a recently painted mural commemorates the activities of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a notorious Protestant paramilitary outfit responsible for more than 480 killings during Northern Ireland's "Troubles". 

Protestants in this corner of Ireland have long celebrated their links with Scotland - many are themselves descended from Scots who came to Ulster during the Plantations in the 17th century. But unionists in Northern Ireland are becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility that their Scottish brethren might vote to leave the United Kingdom when they go to the polls in a referendum on independence this September. 

Last month, Ian Paisley Junior, a Democratic Unionist MP for North Antrim, warned that Scottish independence could reopen the conflict in Northern Ireland by persuading dissident republicans that the union could be dismantled. 

In 2012, Tom Elliot - then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party - described the Scottish National Party, which has held power in Scotland's devolved parliament since 2007, as "a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA".

Irish republicans, too, are keeping an eye on events across the Irish Sea. Gerry Adams, president of the largest nationalist party Sinn Fein, has said that the "union of the United Kingdom is hanging by a thread". Many within Sinn Fein are keen to hold a "border poll" on Irish unity, which can be done under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that established a power-sharing government in Belfast. The last such referendum was held back in 1973. 

N Ireland unionists fear Scottish independence

'Yes' side catching up

In Scotland, the Yes side still trails in the polls, but has closed the gap in recent months. But even if Scots do decide to leave the union, will that really alter the situation in Northern Ireland? 

"Some republicans will say privately here that if Scottish independence happens it's going to have huge knock-on effect here. I'd argue that it's not the same thing," says Alex Kane, a leading unionist commentator and a columnist for a number of Belfast newspapers. "If Northern Ireland ever voted to leave the United Kingdom, then the simple brutal reality is that Northern Ireland at that point ceases to exist once it becomes submerged into a united Ireland. It is about the disappearance of a country, and that is a completely different situation than Scotland.' 

Veteran republican Danny Morrison, formerly a Sinn Fein press officer, agrees - up to a point. "Scottish independence will have a psychological effect on the unionist people, because the majority Protestant community in the North is Presbyterian, not Anglican, and they identify their roots with dissenters from Scotland," he says. "But does [Scottish independence] make me think that it brings Irish unity closer? No, it doesn't."

David Trimble, former Northern Irish first minister and the architect of the Good Friday deal, believes that Scottish independence is unlikely, but that if it did happen it could potentially reopen the thorny constitutional question in Northern Ireland.  If Scots do vote 'yes', Irish republicans would "get excited and say 'it can be done'", says Lord Trimble. 

Tense situation

Certainly, Scottish independence could prove an unwelcome distraction for Northern Irish leaders at a time when the hard-won peace is looking particularly fragile. The flag protests that broke out over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall in December 2012 remain unresolved. This, as well as ongoing disturbances around Orange Order parades, has contributed to the growth of a siege mentality in some loyalist communities. Meanwhile, dissident republicans have stepped up the frequency of their attacks in recent months. Multiparty talks in Belfast chaired by former US envoy Richard Haass broke down without a deal on New Year's Eve. 

Unionists, in particular, are wary of any change to the UK's constitutional status quo. Protestants are no longer an absolute majority in Northern Ireland. And even though opinion polls suggest that as many as half of Catholics now support staying in the union, unionism in Northern Ireland is struggling to articulate a coherent identity. 

"Unionism has a congenital paranoia: They fear everyone and they fear themselves. It is very difficult to have a rational debate," says Alex Kane. "Peter Robinson [DUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister] himself doesn't know what he means he says, 'I am a Unionist'." 

Unionism in Northern Ireland, closely aligned to Protestantism, is very different from its Scottish cousin, says James Mitchell, professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. "Old-style Scottish unionism, which had a religious dimension, has been marginalised. I don't think it's at all important, and it wouldn't be a useful way of articulating unionism in Scotland now, but that still has some resonance in Northern Ireland," Mitchell says. 

Many on the "no" side of the Scottish debate would not welcome interjections from across the Irish Sea, especially from the fringes of Ulster loyalism. In 2012, the Orange Order was chided for saying publically, at an event in Glasgow, that people of Ulster Scots descent in Northern Ireland should have a vote in September's referendum. 

Effects on Northern Ireland

Mitchell does not expect that independence would lead to a significant change in the relationship between Scotland and a part of the UK that is just 18 kilometres away, at the closest point, and with which it has had strong cultural links stretching back to the sixth-century kingdom of Dalriada, and even earlier. 

"The key relationships are personal, social, family, and I don't think these need be disrupted at all," he says. 

In Northern Ireland, many have yet to realise the political implications of the Scottish referendum for the union, and Belfast's place in it, says Ulster Unionist party leader Mike Nesbitt. "The quantity and quality of the debate in Northern Ireland hasn't been impressive at all," he says. Nesbitt rejects the suggestion that Scottish independence could lead to a return to the violence of "the Troubles", but says that September's referendum, regardless of the result, will "politically recalibrate the United Kingdom". 

"If Scotland votes yes to independence, then there has to be a realignment politically and economically, and I'm sure anyone knows what the implications of that would be. Even if Scotland says no to independence, there is bound to be this push towards 'devo max' [further devolution for the Scottish Parliament], and that will obviously have implications for Northern Ireland."

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Al Jazeera
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