Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Should we be looking to Scotland not Dublin?

It's a once unthinkable thought, and might baffle outsiders who haven't kept up, but Peter Robinson's assertion that most Catholics are now in favour of remaining in the UK will have met with a quiet nodding of the head by many Northern Irish Catholics.

Don't we do absurdism brilliantly here? Only the Irish could breed a pro-union Nationalist. Swift would be proud of the concept, if not the politics.

As the referendum on Scottish independence grows nearer, comparisons between Scotland and Northern Ireland seem ever more apt. Scotland has an awkward, schizophrenic and minutely nuanced relationship with England. Polls tell us that most Scots want to remain in the UK, but regard themselves as 'Scottish' rather than British. They cherish their independent legal and education systems. They romanticise their flag, their colourful, witty, colloquial language, their dark, acerbic humour. But the identity they feel so deeply - provocative, anti-establishment, community-conscious - is in large part formed by their position as underdogs kicking against the pricks.

While even the most fervent Scottish unionists (the word has quite a different tone in Scotland) bristle at a British 'national' anthem which advises the crushing of 'rebellious Scots', there's a tacit understanding among most proud bravehearts that it's their spirited stand against their more powerful neighbours which has given them their own cooler, sexier, stronger sense of identity. This is why Devo Max - maximum devolution, including tax-raising powers - is the preferred option for so many Scots. They feel they have a different set of values from those routinely voted into Westminster, and want to set taxes accordingly - but a full-scale breakaway might lose them much of what they enjoy about being Scottish.

Many of my Catholic friends in Northern Ireland - especially those on the left side of 40 - believe they have a closer affinity with local Protestants than with Catholics in the South. Ironically, it's the shared experience of growing up during the Troubles which has encouraged this view. 'It's given us all a sharpness, a toughness, and a gallows humour the people in Dublin don't get,' as one said to me recently at the Belfast premiere of Good Vibrations.

He couldn't have picked a more pertinent place to make his point. Written by a Catholic/Protestant partnership, the warmly-received Good Vibrations is a film about cross-community punk kids in the 70s and 80s who are brought together by the conflict both through their refusal to be defined by it, and their embracing of what unites them; the liberating forces of music, youth and love. It's a romantic film, but it also has a caustic edge where the likes of The Commitments has whimsy.

As Robinson implied, the peace process, alongside the strengthening of Irish cross-border relations, has had a hearteningly dampening effect on the hate-ghettos of Northern Ireland. As has the increasing popularity of integrated schools. Of course there are still huge problems and divisions - though some would say the worst of these are maintained more strongly in Stormont than in the average household. And some of the things which mark Northern Ireland out from the rest of the UK - disproportionately high instances of unprogressive attitudes regarding racial integration and homosexuality, the illegality of abortion - are not for celebrating.

But there is something unique about being Northern Irish in 2012 which many natives rather like. Being swallowed up by the Republic isn't quite as attractive to them as it was to their parents. And if there's now a new question, Devo Max might be the answer.

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