One of the great assumptions of the Scottish independence debate is that if the country were to vote ‘Yes’ to independence this September, it would leave behind a rump United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This notion is illustrated best by that graphic seen on BBC News, in which the St Andrew’s flag gradually divests itself from the Union flag, to leave the St George’s Cross and the Cross of St Patrick against a now-blanched background.
But could such a rump UK function? I doubt it. One between England and Wales could, possibly. Despite the wishes of Welsh (and indeed English) nationalists, the two countries are physically and economically linked – just have a look at the commercial relationship between Bristol and Cardiff or Liverpool and north Wales. But Northern Ireland would resemble a very odd third partner in this hypothetical, slimmed-down UK, cut off by the sea and by culture (there are no peace walls in England and only Southport has annual Orange Order parades).
So, I have a better suggestion: if Scotland declares independence, shouldn’t Northern Ireland go with it? No, let me rephrase that: if Scotland becomes independent, it has a moral obligation to take Northern Ireland with it. Ulster is, after all, far more of a Scottish colony than an English one, demographically speaking. From the reign of King James VI of Scotland (who also became James I of England in 1603), Ulster was disproportionately colonised by Scots (many of whom later left for America to become ‘Scotch-Irish’), which explains why Presbyterianism was always a more popular denomination in Ulster than the Church of Ireland. The Scottish legacy is also reflected in efforts in recent decades among Protestants to cement an ‘Ulster-Scots’ culture and language. While you will see the Scottish saltire at Orange Order marches, you won’t see an empty-handed Cross of St George.
The two lands are united in their love of and hatred of Glasgow’s two football teams and by simmering sectarianism. The Scottish National Party (SNP) was very keen to jump on the Braveheart bandwagon. Why not go even further back in time? Parts of Ulster and Scotland were once united in the sixth and seventh century in the kingdom of Dalriada. The revival of this ancient kingdom, should Scotland vote ‘Yes’, would make much more sense than Northern Ireland’s continued bondage to England. After all, most English people are notoriously ignorant about Ulster. During the Troubles, the English regarded the province with a mixture of irritation and indifference, which is why the IRA in the 1970s knew that England would only take notice if there were bombs on the mainland. ‘They’re both as bad as each other’ and ‘fancy fighting about religion’ were the two common reactions. To the English, the Northern Irish are a foreign people, which is why they found the grating, mangled accents of John Cole and Ian Paisley so amusing – so otherish, so strange.
There has been little love in the opposite direction. To Irish republicans, England was always the occupier, and most Ulster Catholics had good reason to come to dislike the English after 1969. It was with English accents that they heard their houses raided, their husbands and brothers interned and shot. Meanwhile, Ulster Protestants have always – with fair reason – suspected that London wanted to rid itself of the Six Counties, hence the actions of 1974 and 1985 (even 1912), when ‘loyalists’ rebelled against a perceived perfidious London government.