AFTER 17 MONTHS of wrangling between London and Edinburgh, there is now finally an agreement between the two governments on how a referendum on independence can take place.
The agreement – which allows the Scottish government to set the date in 2014 and for the extension of the franchise to sixteen year olds for this vote – will be welcomed by supporters in the Yes camp. However scratch the surface and you can see that in reality they have nothing to be happy about as they had to concede their important third option on devo-max for a simple in/out question.
Even on the concession they DID score on lowering the voting age, independent analysis suggests that this new voting group will comprise at best just 2.5 per cent of the electorate. When opinion polls are showing a double digit lead for the No side, this concession by the British government pales into insignificance compared to the devo-max concession handed over by Alex Salmond.
So this is the current state of play in Scotland: a referendum campaign that will last 100 weeks, which in comparison is more than double the length of time allotted by the Quebec government in their independence referendum in 1995. However, this column is not concerned with who emerges victorious from this referendum but rather how we in Ireland plan to conduct ourselves during the campaign.
Even before this deal was announced we have seen the Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson make public statements supporting the No side and we have seen the even more bizarre spectacle of motions at party conferences here expressing support for the SNP campaign to achieve independence. I am not seeking to demean the importance of the Scottish referendum. On the contrary. But while I can understand why Irish people may have a view on the issue, I fail to see why people want their respective political parties or governments to adopt an official position either for or against the idea of Scottish independence.
“An act of pure folly”
It is natural for Irish people to have certain sympathies with the idea of a smaller state breaking away from the rest of Britain and charting its own course as this country did 90 years ago. But it would be a pure act of folly to encourage politicians in opposition or in government to actively take a position on this issue. Take the damage to Anglo-Irish relations that would occur if the Irish government, or a sizeable portion of the opposition,
came out in favour of this independence referendum.
Successive governments since Garrett Fitzgerald have made it a priority to foster better relations with the British government achieving great results in resolving the Troubles. We really need to ask do we want to go back to the days when relations between the Dublin and London governments were little more than mutual distrust and suspicion.
The argument against taking a position on this issue goes beyond politics as Ireland’s economic prospects could also be adversely affected. It is estimated that Anglo-Irish trade amounts to around €1 billion per week making Britain one of our most valuable export markets. Ryanair estimates that travel between London and Dublin have risen over 10 per cent in the last two years, making that route by far the busiest in Ireland. All of this does not include the €3 billion bilateral loan given to Ireland with a reduced interest rate in November 2010.
The benefits of a friendly relationship with the British government far outweigh any introverted gratification that we may receive from giving a strong stance on Scottish independence.
“Against the intrusion of outside bodies”
For decades, whether it is Unionists in Northern Ireland or Republicans across the island of Ireland, many have spoken out strongly against the intrusion of outside bodies into the internal affairs of this island. Yet these are the very same people who are now ready to speak with a clarion voice on how Scotland should decide its own future. We took great pride in this island when in 1998 we made a similar decision about the future of this country. We believed that decisions made in Ireland by Irish men and Irish women was surely a good thing.
We should afford Scotland that very same opportunity now without interjecting our opinions.
I do not know what the outcome of the referendum will be in 2014 but I believe that politicians here should take a restrained approach. Over last weekend Enda Kenny spoke of his belief that sometime in the future we will see a unified Irish state. We need to ask ourselves over the coming months – before we urge our political parties to adopt a position on Scotland – how we would like others outside this country to conduct themselves if a referendum on Irish unity were held.
Surely the only rational approach for Ireland to take is to welcome the simple fact of a decision being taken by Scots on their country’s future.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.