This article first appeared in the Times newspaper on 10th May 2022
Rejoice! We are about to have a new debate inflicted upon us. The logic of its wishful thinking goes something like this: Sinn Féin’s victory in Northern Ireland is proof that the UK is unwinding, and therefore Scotland and Northern Ireland can share a common future freed from the Union.
Of course, the Scots and Northern Irish share very many bonds as well as an occasionally difficult history, both voted against Brexit, and are now headed by confident communicators as nationalist leaders.
As a dual citizen I campaigned in both Glasgow and Belfast last week (Labour in Glasgow; SDLP in Belfast). I heard two accents, but one voice: demanding that their politicians focus on cost of living rather than identity.
Scottish Labour values its close relationship with the SDLP. My sense is that Labour may also want to understand the success of the one Northern Ireland party that made most progress – the Alliance – whose thoughtful campaign elevated respect for others into a patient art form.
Last week, Sinn Fein was careful not seek a mandate for a border poll on Irish reunification. But just as with the SNP back in 2007, their first ever victory brings that moment a step nearer.
But what I am about to say is so self-evident that it should hardly need observing. Scottish nationalism is not analogous to contemporary Irish nationalism but is its polar opposite. Northern Ireland nationalists want to leave the UK to join a neighbour with whom they share an island. Scottish nationalism wants to leave a neighbour with whom we already share an island.
On Europe each nationalism would have an equal but opposite effect. In leaving the UK, Northern Ireland would enter union with Ireland – an EU member state – Belfast would automatically gain re-entry into the EU. In leaving GB, Scotland would be entering into union with no-one and remain locked out of the EU. Northern Ireland would be leaving one union to immediately join two others while Scotland would be leaving its only union for the vagaries of perhaps one day re-entering another – if twenty-seven other European governments acquiesce to such a request.
And the contradictions continue: Northern Ireland would be leaving Sterling for the certainty of the Euro; Scotland – eight years after the 2014 referendum it’s none the clearer? Northern Ireland would be abolishing a land border on its island and turning its Protocol in the Irish Sea into an international border, while Scotland would be inviting one onto our island.
So Scottish independence and Irish reunification would be two strikingly contradictory rather than coterminous events for the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland. I’m not making the case for either nationalism, although it is credible to favour one and not the other. Sinn Féin – often translated as Ourselves Alone would take Northern Ireland into a new double union. Its contradiction of Scottish independence is a cause that really would reduce Scotland to being ourselves alone.