I’ll always associate the town of Girvan, on the Ayrshire coast near Stranraer, with Mars ice creams. Specifically, eating too many of them in a row, as I did on a November night in 1995 as a 12-year-old on the way back to Northern Ireland from a school trip to Glasgow to see a Celtic match, over and back on the same day. No lasting harm came to me, but the incident is in some way indicative of the patterns of intimacy that exist between Northern Ireland and Scotland’s west.
People in Northern Ireland are “blood of our blood, bone of our bone” said the then-new SNP first minister Alex Salmond, quoting the Scottish Presbyterian land reformer TW Russell, meeting Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, also newly installed in office at Stormont in 2007. Salmond might have chosen less primal language when discussing a post-conflict society, but his point about dense connections was and remains unarguable.
But while it is long established that Ulster Presbyterians of Scots ancestry and Scottish Catholics of Irish ancestry are coherent and politically relevant groups, there has been surprisingly little focused writing on the interaction – and to some extent interdependence – of politics in the two devolved jurisdictions of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Ties That Bind? by James Greer and Graham Walker, academics from either side of the North Channel (but both based in Belfast) is a timely attempt to address that absence, while also providing a more thoughtful and expansive reading of post-Brexit upheavals than other pro-union analyses have managed.
Recent arguments around the Northern Ireland protocol find echoes in another debate that has recurred within Ulster unionism since partition: that of devolution versus integration. Is the North’s position within the UK better guaranteed by robust devolved authority exercised in Belfast, even if it highlights both the region’s uniqueness and an implicit lack of trust in Westminster elites? Or was devolution and the creation of a Northern Ireland parliament an original sin, which fatally detached the region from wider UK politics and helped enshrine politics based on orange/green division rather than class interest.
Nor are debates over Scottish constitutional futures a recent development, though since the SNP’s 2007 Holyrood election win they have taken on a binary nationalist versus unionist quality more reminiscent of the other side of the north channel. The first Scottish Home Rule Association was set up in 1886, the year of the first failed Irish Home Rule Bill and the concept of ‘Home Rule All Round’ – that is, devolution to Scotland and Wales as well as Ireland – persisted throughout the 20th century, albeit in a lower key.
It was not until the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s, followed by the Thatcher Government and the devastating impact of its laissez-faire industrial policies on the Scottish central belt, that actual independence became a live political topic. The imperative for devolution quickened in response, at least on the part of Scottish Labour, whose constitutional convention created the blueprint for the Scottish Parliament that would be created in 1999, alongside a Welsh Assembly and a powersharing Northern Ireland Assembly. Thus did the Blair Government virtually stumble into a more plural, less centralised version of the UK than ever existed before and one that the authors of this book clearly believe offers the union its best hope for long-term survival.
No group of people has been asked to justify their claim to British identity as much as the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland— Ties That Bind?
This was particularly true in the case of Northern Ireland’s distinct and to put it mildly, heavily debated version of the union. For the first time, not only were all traditions included in governance in the region thanks to the Belfast Agreement, but a devolved north was no longer an anomaly inside the UK, with other points of devolved power and influence in Edinburgh and Cardiff (as well as a deepened relationship with Dublin). From the perspective of many non-unionists (still a minority in 1998, though not in 2023) Northern Ireland became less objectionable at the same as the UK became less centralised. The authors of this book have the honesty to acknowledge that what they call these “more pluralist constructs of the union” have at best found a mixed response among the unionists of Ulster.
There are certainly assumptions in this book that non-unionists will not share. After a compelling account of how the SNP effectively overhauled its reputation among Scottish Catholics comes what feels like a prolonged and faintly axe-grinding journey into the politics of sectarianism in modern Scotland, complete with reprinted quotes from a Rangers online message board.
“No group of people has been asked to justify their claim to British identity as much as the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland” is an impossible statement to prove. But it does beg a vital question those of us who favour Irish unity will also need to answer: what is Britishness outside the British state and what should it mean in the context of a new, all-Ireland dispensation?
Since the Belfast Agreement promises the people of the North the continued right to be Irish or British or both in any eventuality, developing and sustaining truly plural constitutional visions remains a defining challenge for advocates of both change and the status quo. This book would be profitably read by both groups.
Matthew O’Toole is an SDLP MLA for Belfast South