Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 22 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Scottish independence: Whatever referendum outcome Scotland can frame debate in future terms, not the past - unlike Northern Ireland

Whatever referendum outcome Scotland can frame debate in future terms, not the past
Whatever referendum outcome Scotland can frame debate in future terms, not the past

There will be an outcome and a lesson for Northern Ireland that will emerge from the Scottish referendum. Whatever the result, there will be a new deal for Scotland, whether that be independence or extended devolution.

The former may drive insecurity further into unionism and remove what they consider as their closest British relative. The latter will raise demands for a more equitable distribution of power out of Westminster and across the other devolved regions.

The lesson is that the Scots have generally dealt well with complex and emotive issues, and in so doing have provided legitimacy to all of the voices that will frame the referendum process.

Within Alba are the listening and courtesy skills less common within our own devolved domain. It is as if the politicians of Scotland have aimed to use the skills of the articulate to provide the electorate with information, ideas and a voice. There have been clear signs over the past year of campaigning that democracy in Scotland is both mature and robust.

We can understand that issues that confront Northern Ireland are rawer than in Scotland, but it is not a place unknown to bitter uprisings, land clearances, pernicious de-industrialisation, cultural control and sectarian asperity.

There is still immense value in appreciating the Scots' attempts, despite division, to raise the level of debate within an already well-informed electorate.

Topics have been numerous and have included the EU, Nato, complex public sector spending issues, university funding and Scotland's lower-than-UK-average life expectancy.

In one debate, a businesswoman said she would decide on how she would vote if politicians could convince her that they would do something about a life expectancy of 68 in parts of east Glasgow, thereby indicating a very pragmatic desire for meaningful politics first and constitutional politics second.

Whatever the outcome, Scotland has shown the capacity to debate and for politicians to speak to, and not at, their respective audiences. The first Salmond versus Darling debate was robust and passionate, so much so that the usually dour Darling came across as ardent and astute.

We witnessed conviction politicians who disagreed about the vision, but did so by offering political opinion and analysis as opposed to mere diatribe. The central theme of that debate – Scotland's exclusion from sterling – led to a week of measured media commentary, academic analysis and a purposeful recognition of the electorate's opinion on the matter.

Devolution has been good for Scotland and has provided a platform on which to think about and develop a future. Northern Ireland lacks the same dynamic because the 'sureties' of the Union, or Irish unification, are asserted without any notion that other options exist, or that the electorate may be more complex, or wavering, than imagined.

Would Irish unification be in the interests of an emergent Catholic middle class heavily dependent upon public sector employment? Similarly, do unionists still fear a Republic largely unrecognisable to what it was at the start of conflict in 1968?

Of course, only a handful of academics and civic society groups even think to debate such issues. For the political classes there will be no similar debate, as their conviction is anti-persuasion centred upon a self-acclaimed knowledge of what 'their' people think – overconfidence at times espoused in the form of the Orwellian mantra, 'two legs better'.

Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond during their television debate
Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond during their television debate

In Scotland, the maturity of the debate has been based upon an ability to understand the diversity of the electorate. In Northern Ireland, political coverage is usually about the political fallout, and within that drip, drip, drip of disagreement the electorate seem to simply disappear.

Across the Irish Sea, there has been a serious and informed commentary about women, who tend to favour the No camp due to their fear that the risks are too high with regard to the wellbeing of future generations.

Similarly, the first-time voters entitled to vote at 16 are not Yes voters, as expected, but by a ratio of around 2:1 see value in staying with the UK. That UK is defined by them by social media influences and the coolness of the British brand.

This Britishness among the young appears to be based upon a feelgood factor as opposed to blind devotion and an expectation of that devoutness to outdated ideas of identity and the constitutional self. Many of our young people also feel a less traditional desire to cling to the old, but are generally invisible in debates and analysis.

Latest polls suggest that the Yes camp has a 5% chance of winning. Slim hopes, it would appear.

But this has always been seen as a win-win campaign, as the likelihood will be of Devo Max and a redefinition of the Union and fiscal authority.

If that appears on the constitutional horizon, there will be greater demands for exemptions regarding corporation tax in Northern Ireland based upon an unaccounted for claim of massive job creation, insignificant evaluation of the social cost of related reductions in the subvention from Westminster and a failure to prove the distributional benefits of corporate tax-cutting.

In Scotland, they will at least know how to map out and debate the evident pros and cons post-referendum in their demands to Whitehall – a capacity based upon staring forward as opposed to our constant rear-view mirror approach.

If Scotland does go independent, then the impulse for Irish unification, or a variation of it, will rise significantly. Sinn Fein's continued growth in the Republic and the departure of Scotland would be an impetus for change and would turn what seems an abstract goal into something more tangible.

The one certainty is that the level and depth of the local constitutional debate will remain mired in early 20th century ideas of identity, economy, nationhood and the constitutional position.

That situation, founded on self-belief and collective diagnoses, will suit some, but is increasingly unreflective of an increasingly diverse Northern Ireland in which many seek a politics of the future no longer based upon century-old positions.

What the politics of Padraig Pearse and Edward Carson's can tell us about the 21st century is limited but, among some, somehow valid and defining.

Scottish politicians know that all is future without the need to reach deep into the past to rescue, or define, an argument.

What the Scottish debate has exposed is that devolution, extended devolution, or even independence will be centred upon respecting the rights of electoral majorities. Scottish leaders extol the need for participative politics, balanced debate and measured opinions.

What we are witnessing is a Scottish capacity for passionate courtesy based upon Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher's proposition, "that nothing builds self-esteem and self-confidence like accomplishment".

The Scots, of whatever hue, understand the potential and future paths in ways we have yet to conceive.

Professor Peter Shirlow is deputy director of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen's University Belfast