Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein sympathy for Scottish Yes vote, but it won't take sides

Nationalists here in pact of neutrality on referendum

By Noel McAdam

A high-profile Sinn Fein figure has spoken of the party's sympathy for the people of Scotland who are keen to see it break free from the UK.

While the republican party has said that the referendum is a matter for the Scottish alone, MLA Phil Flanagan said there were obvious sympathies with any country seeking independence.

With just over a fortnight to go before Scotland goes to the polls to vote on its future, republicans and nationalists have deliberately opted out of the Scottish Referendum debate.

While the unionist parties have repeatedly called for an independent Scotland to be rejected, the nationalist parties have remained quiet despite their backing for independence.

Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have over the last two years taken an effective vow of silence on the issue – even though they continue to campaign for a united Ireland.

The two main nationalist parties have insisted that the future of Scotland is best left to the people of Scotland and have stayed silent on the issue.

An SDLP statement to the Belfast Telegraph said: "The Scottish referendum is a matter for the Scottish people."

A Sinn Fein spokesman said: "The issue of national self-determination for Scotland is a matter for the people who live there as it should be for any country."

However, Sinn Fein's Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Phil Flanagan shed some light on the party's thoughts.

"Obviously Sinn Fein as an international party supports national self-determination and nations taking their own affairs into their own hands," he said.

"We would therefore be sympathetic to countries that are campaigning for their own independence.

"But it is not for us to lecture the people of Scotland on how they should vote. It is not for anyone to cross the Irish Sea and tell the people of Scotland what their own decision should be; we are all the better if we leave this in their hands."

And the party's South Down MLA Chris Hazzard said: "It is an opportunity for the people of Scotland to decide what is the best direction for them going forward.

"I know there were concerns that when it was first announced it would lead to a great deal of recrimination and anxiety but instead it is being seen as a great exercise in democracy," he added.

"But it is not up to me to suggest whether it should be a yes or a no vote. That is entirely a matter for the people."

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has warned strongly against any "meddling or interference" in the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence.

The South Belfast MP said: "We feel that we have enough difficulties and serious issues of our own to be dealing with here.

"On the referendum, the SDLP has no official position. As a party we have no preference what the outcome of the vote is. People in the party of course are entitled to their individual views."

Mr McDonnell added: "People in Northern Ireland would not welcome anyone from Scotland, or elsewhere, coming over here and telling us our business. We wish the people of Scotland well and will respect the outcome of the referendum whatever it is. We are not meddling or interfering because it is their business."

Another senior SDLP member, who is a champion of Ulster-Scots, said he is "utterly neutral" on the Scottish independence referendum.

Liam Logan said: "I really think it is entirely a matter for the Scottish people themselves."

Asked what impact a yes or no majority might have on the practice of 'the hamely tongue', Mr Logan replied simply: "None".

The long-time activist argued that the outcome would have little impact at all in Northern Ireland.

"I don't detect a great deal of interest," he said. "I wonder to what extent people here know they have a different regime over there and how many members of the Scottish Parliament they could name."

Key questions on the poll that could reshape the UK

Q. What difference would becoming independent make to Scotland?

A. The campaign in favour, led by the country's First Minister Alex Salmond, argues that Scotland's future will be in Scotland's hands, allowing the government to improve childcare, cut energy bills and scrap the 'bedroom tax' among other things. But campaigners against, under the Better Together banner, led by former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, insist Scotland is stronger for remaining part of the UK and can have increased devolved powers to handle its own affairs – called 'DevoMax'.

Q. Who will make the decision?

A. Almost everyone over the age of 16 who lives in Scotland will be entitled to vote, as long as they are registered. Unlike other UK elections, 16- and 17-year-olds are able to vote.

Q. What is the exact question they are being asked?

A. The question on the paper will be: 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' and voters have a straight yes or no choice. Whichever option has the most votes will win the referendum, regardless of how many people turn out to vote.

Q. Why is the referendum happening now?

A. Because the Scottish National Party, which has long campaigned for the country to be independent, won a majority at the last Scottish Parliament election. Powers were transferred to the Assembly almost two years ago to legislate for the referendum.

Q. What happens if there is a Yes vote?

A. After a process of negotiations, Scotland would formally leave the United Kingdom and become a new and separate state.

Q. What happens if there is a No vote?

A. Scotland would remain a part of the UK, with its own devolved Parliament. But there would still be work to be done to make the changes to the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish government agreed between Edinburgh and London in the Scotland Act of 2012.

Q. What difference will it make to relations between Northern Ireland and Scotland?

A. The Yes campaign has argued none and said it wants to continue to develop long-standing links with the province. Better Together has argued that inevitably it is the beginning of the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Q. Are there any implications for travelling between the province and a new independent Scotland ?

A. The Scottish National Party has pledged the current Common Travel Area which includes the UK, Republic of Ireland, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, would remain.

Q. Would people from NI be able to apply for Scottish citizenship?

A. If they have a parent or grandparent from Scotland, or a connection with the country, they will be eligible to apply.

Q. What about any consequences for trade?

A. Better Together points out that no one knows how long it might take an independent Scotland to join the EU, especially if Scotland tries to negotiate for its own terms and 'opt outs' which could make trading with existing EU countries – including the continuing UK – more difficult. But the Salmond camp argues a more economically competitive Scotland would be in a stronger position to import from major trading partners, including Northern Ireland.

Q. Would Scotland be better off if it separated?

A. Better Together argues that as part of the UK, the Scottish Government receives predictable levels of funding, and is able to pursue its own policies on health, education, housing, policing and transport. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and Centre for Public Policy for Regions have also argued an independent Scotland would start off in a more challenging financial position, including a higher level of borrowing.

Q. Can Scotland keep the pound?

A. The SNP point out that in the last debate with Salmond, Mr Darling said "of course Scotland can continue using the pound", but Better Together argues sharing a currency does not make sense if separate governments are pulling in separate directions, which is why the UK did not join the Euro.

Q. Will students from Northern Ireland be eligible for free education in Scottish universities, as citizens of an EU country?

A. This is unclear, although the SNP has said it will work with the EU to try to continue the policy, which leaves third-level education students less saddled by debt.

Q. If Scotland votes No, will there be another referendum on independence at a later date?

A. The Edinburgh Agreement stated only that a referendum must be held by the end of 2014. There is no arrangement in place for another referendum on independence.

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