Are we beginning to see the emergence in the Scottish independence debate of a modern, ferociously complicated version of the ‘Ulster question’ that vexed Irish nationalism a century ago?
Following a campaign by Northern Isles MSPs the SNP have conceded that Orkney and Shetland have the right to exclude themselves from any independent Scottish state “if there was a big enough drive for self-determination” from their population.
The islands have always been markedly more hostile to rule from Edinburgh than the rest of Scotland, and the prospect of their ‘opting out’ of an independent Scotland – either to remain a part of the United Kingdom or to become the colder, rainier equivalent of a gulf oil sheikhdom – is an entirely credible one.
Naturally, attention has immediately turned to the impact of the loss of Northern Isles territorial waters on the SNP’s oil-based predictions of future Scottish prosperity. Yet the economic argument is only part of the broader debate surrounding independence. More important in the long term is the concession by the SNP that a part of what presently forms the country of Scotland would not be compelled to join a new Scottish state.
Is there any particular reason that this should only apply to islands? If Orkney and Shetland’s populations can elect, by constituting a clear majority in a geographically contiguous territory, to opt out of a vote carried by a plurality of Scottish voters as a whole, then why might loyal areas of the mainland not do the same?
A similar, although much simpler, conundrum faced proponents of Irish Home Rule and independence a century ago. Irish nationalists faced an intractable minority of Irishmen who wanted nothing to do with the nationalist project. The problem this posed to the nationalists was nicely summed up by Bonar Law in the pamphlet Against Home Rule – The Case for the Union:
“Every argument which can be adduced in favour of separate treatment of the Irish Nationalist minority against the majority of the United Kingdom, applies with far greater force in favour of separate treatment for the Unionists of Ulster as against the majority of Ireland.”
Your mileage may vary on ‘far greater force’, but from the perspective of self-determination his basic point appears unanswerable: if it is oppression for London to dictate to Dublin, how is it otherwise for Dublin to dictate to Belfast? The only way to find the Unionist position unjust is to come at it from a nationalist position that assumes that Irish nationalism trumps northern self-determination and that both British and Ulster Unionist identities are somehow less legitimate than their pan-Irish rival.
Although doubtless problematic for the Irish nationalists, Ulster was in many ways a rather simple problem. With the exception of a few holdouts in southern Dublin, Ireland’s unionists were overwhelmingly concentrated in the north-east of the country. Although the question of exactly how many counties ought to remain British was troublesome, most of Ireland was strongly separatist and the loyal territories were relatively clear cut and easy to extricate. The same is unlikely to be true of Scotland, where unionism and nationalism are much less tied to geography and community.
This means that Scotland has no easily identifiable ‘Ulster’ that would possess both geographic and social cohesion in its loyalty to the UK. However, in the hypothetical scenario where large areas of the country were willing to ‘secede’ from a separate Scotland to remain in the UK, what basis is there for denying them the right if it was been extended to Orkney and Shetland. That they are not islands?
Does Edinburgh have any more right to compel Ayrshire and Dumfries, or even Glasgow, than London has to compel Edinburgh to remain in the union against its will? Would the SNP be happy to walk out of the union with only those parts of Scotland that agree with them? It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what the Irish eventually did.Share on Facebook