What can we learn from the Scottish?


There has been much speculation in the media this week about what Scottish independence would mean for Northern Ireland.

To date there has been no analysis of the debate itself and what lessons we could learn from it.

In Northern Ireland the “national question” is mostly, if not exclusively, about national identity. So the debate, if you could even call it that, is about what the media generously calls “cultural issues” and “matters of national identity”.

So I fly one flag and you fly another. So we’ll take yours down because it does not reflect our culture. And where we live we paint our kerbstones so people will know we are British. And we even argue about the other side’s right to a distinct identity: “Ireland for the Irish”, “Brits Out” on one side and “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley” and “if you don’t like our benefits, go live somewhere else” on the other.

We’ve become trapped in this, it is all pervading and tribal, and as a result there has been little if any rational debate about the benefits or otherwise of remaining in the Union. When you pause to think about it, after all the bloodshed and trouble that is genuinely astonishing.

One lesson we could learn from the Scots is to take the debate to an entirely different level, a rational one, where the central issue for the voter in Scotland as to whether or not to opt for independence will be “Will I be better off as a result?”

The Scottish National Party’s paper on independence sets out to demonstrate that an independent Scotland would be more prosperous. And it is interesting to note that it tries to appeal not just to its core voters but to give comfort and security to people of a unionist disposition. So the Queen would remain head of state, and if it can be negotiated the pound would be retained: there would be no change to the Union Flag and it would be okay to fly it in Scotland.

The SNP clearly understands that no matter how proud a Scot you are, unless you feel that you are going to be better off under independence, you are unlikely to vote for it. So, yes there is an emotional undercurrent to it all, but the primary arguments are about the economy and we are set for a proper debate.

In Scotland there are issues about how taxation would work, the banking system, what would happen to the country’s involvement in NATO, the possession of nuclear weapons, membership of the European Union, the currency to be used, even what would happen to the BBC. The SNP’s paper runs to many hundreds of pages laying out its position on all these matters and more.

Scottish unionists are already joining the debate this week, challenging assertions, and their case is equally plain and simple: Scotland would be much better off remaining in the UK and the SNP’s course is irresponsible, ill-thought through and ultimately damaging to citizens’ well being. And they seek to persuade the proudest of Scots to be so within the UK.

This, of course, is politics so there will be plenty of dirty tricks and emotional displays along the way, but the tone set from the outset is as different as it could possibly be from what passes as political discourse here.

There’s a lot that could be learned from this in both camps in Northern Ireland, especially unionists. The biggest difference between the two jurisdictions is, whilst Scotland is a net contributor through taxes to the Treasury, the situation in Northern Ireland is completely different: we have a fiscal deficit of around £10 billion, the equivalent of more than £6,000 for every citizen. In business terms Northern Ireland makes heavy losses every year and whoever takes it on is going to have to pick up a massive tab.

The economy in the Republic is only just starting to recover from collapse and could not afford this, even if it wanted to. So who pays? This has never been satisfactorily answered by nationalists. Why should the British or the Germans meet the shortfall? There would be no votes in that. Also what would happen to the Northern Ireland Health Service, the benefits system, schools, public housing? Would the first action of a united Irish government not be to cut back on everything in order to balance the books? What would happen to our political institutions and how would an all-Ireland parliament work, and, within that, how would the interests of people in the north be secured?

Demographics are changing in Northern Ireland: there will be a time when Catholics are in a majority. Sinn Fein want to have a border poll, and will continue to press more vociferously for one as the population continues to shift. Do we want these matters to be decided on a sectarian headcount?

Or is it time that we started to put our debate on a rational footing? The electorate is already moving in that way. There are significant numbers of voters from a Catholic background who tell opinion pollsters that they have no current appetite for a united Ireland.

The reality is that for the rational nationalist a united Ireland is an aspiration, not something that is achievable in the short, or even medium term. The present system is much preferable to the economic chaos that would ensue were unification to be voted through.

Which brings us back to “cultural issues”. The key to ensuring the emergence of rationalism in politics is to concentrate on issues that really matter: the wealth and well being of people who live here, regardless of their background or beliefs.

And the paradox that the more unionists concentrate on flags and emblems and the assertion of culture, the less they are likely to win over the support of those they will need when their traditional support is no longer in the majority.