The explosion of loyalist anger sparked by the decision to remove the Union Jack from the top of Belfast City Hall a few weeks ago – and the street protests, riots and police clashes that followed – has served as an abrupt reminder of how deeply unsettled the political situation in Northern Ireland remains.
Despite the power-sharing deal struck by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 2007, politics in the province has grown more, not less, polarised as support for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and its unionist equivalent, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), has steadily waned.
The combination of creeping instability on one side of the Irish Sea and an increasingly assertive nationalist movement on the other has cast doubt on the viability of Britain’s current constitutional arrangements. It has also raised questions about how Northern Ireland and Scotland, with their centuries of shared if often fractious cultural and political history, relate to one another in the context of a rapidly evolving – or weakening – British Union.
So how might Scottish independence affect politics in Northern Ireland?
Last January, Tom Elliot, then leader of the UUP, launched a stinging attack on the SNP, accusing Alex Salmond of “posing a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA.”
This was followed by an equally provocative intervention from one of Elliot’s predecessors, Lord Empey, who warned that Scottish secession could push Ulster back into conflict. “I don’t wish to exaggerate,” he said, “but if the Scottish nationalists were to succeed, it could possibly reignite the difficulties we have just managed to overcome.”
But when I spoke to Mike Nesbitt, Elliot’s successor as UUP leader, in 2012, he was far less concerned by the advance of Scottish nationalism than his unionist colleagues, and dismissed the idea that victory for the SNP in next year’s independence referendum could provoke a return to the Troubles.
“I think we’re settled,” he said. “We’ve been through 40 years of needless violence and lost 3,500 lives for no good reason. In 2007 all the political parties came to this [power-sharing] project ready to do a deal together. So these institutions are here to stay, and we will not be taking a backward step.”
During a prolonged economic downturn, Nesbitt added, Scotland’s constitutional status is not likely to rank high on the list of priorities for working-class loyalist communities: “The loyalist elements in this country are pretty focused on looking at what happens here. I don’t think they have a particular focus on whether Scotland goes for devo-max or goes for independence. They’re concerned about day-to-day living, which is not easy.”
Nonetheless, the dissolution of the union between Scotland and England might force Northern Irish unionists to reconsider their relationship with mainland Britain; after all, it is to Scotland – not England or Wales – that many of them feel the greatest religious and cultural affinity. If Scotland strikes out on its own, with whom – or what – would they be in union?
According to the Dublin-born, Edinburgh-based historian Owen Dudley Edwards, Scottish independence has the potential to aggravate the separatist streak in Paisleyite unionism that has lain dormant in recent years.
“There was always an assumption in Paisleyism that maybe some day Northern Ireland might find it better to go independent,” he told me.
“Ian Paisley himself detested the liberalism of English life. London can look a very hedonistic society and when he went to Westminster in 1970 it was Sodom and Gomorrah, so from time to time he has uttered statements about Ulster possibly going it alone. In this sense, Ulster might look more attractive outside a UK without Scotland.”
Not that separation is a realistic political option for Ulster: support for Northern Irish independence registers in the single digits. But if it were to stay part of a truncated UK, ties between Belfast and Westminster could grow increasingly strained, particularly if Paisley’s DUP consolidates its control of unionism’s electoral landscape.
This is precisely how Barry McElduff, Sinn Fein MLA for West Tyrone, believes things will unfold. He anticipates that Scottish independence would relegate Northern Ireland and Wales to the status of poor relation in a multinational partnership defined almost exclusively by English majority interests.
“If Scotland breaks away from the Union, then the Union is no longer what it was,” he told me when we met recently at Stormont.
“Will we be in a Union with London? Even for Unionists that’s not a very attractive proposition because in any partnership with London your needs will be always be peripheral.”
McElduff is convinced that the Scottish constitutional debate is stirring a crisis of identity in Ulster unionism: “All the old certainties are gone. The Union between England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland is disappearing.
“WB Yeats wrote a poem about Easter 1916 in which he used the phrase ‘All changed, changed utterly’. I think Scotland has changed, changed utterly and the destination of this new journey is completely unknown. As a result, the Unionists are suffering greatly.”
Yet, despite the challenges it would pose to Ulster unionists, it is unlikely that the break-up of the Union would bring Sinn Fein’s goal of a united Ireland any closer to realisation. Sinn Fein may be the largest nationalist party at the Stormont Assembly – and in the process of increasing its share of the vote at Irish parliamentary elections – but support for a 32-county Ireland remains low.
The 2012 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, an authoritative account of political attitudes in the north, showed that 73 per cent of the Ulster electorate as a whole wants to remain part of the UK, with 52 per cent of Catholic voters content to maintain the Union with Britain. The figure for Protestants was 96 per cent.
To some extent, the erosion of republican sentiment – a consequence of economic stagnation and austerity in the south, the growing indifference of the Dublin political class to the all-Ireland project, and the emergence of a northern Catholic middle-class – has helped cement the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
But it has also left a hard-core of republican activists out on the margins, frustrated with what they see as a softening of the attitudes of the Sinn Fein leadership towards Britain and the institutions of the British state.
Intriguingly, it is in this context that Scottish independence could have the greatest impact on Irish and Northern Irish politics.
“By showing how democratic and parliamentary means can be used to secure sweeping constitutional change, nationalism in Scotland could help finish off the last remnants of republican paramilitarism,” Dudley Edwards says.
“The success of constitutional nationalism in Scotland would echo all over the world as an example of the effectiveness of non-violence.
“The tradition says that St Patrick came from Scotland to civilise the Irish, and I’m perfectly happy to welcome St Alex Salmond from Scotland to civilise us Irish again.”