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Scottish independence: Unionists must change tack to save the Union

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

"Nationalism is an ugly force," began a letter to The Spectator last week apropos the referendum on Scotland's future, "accentuating and exaggerating minor differences, creating and exploiting perceived grievances". Too true.

It has been the poisonous driving force in the referendum debate, as it has been for so long in Ireland, which will suffer further if Scotland goes independent.

And, though sectarianism is still an issue in parts of Scotland, it was the toxic combination of a tradition of republican violence and the monstrous religious bigotry of the Rev Ian Paisley and his cohorts that left Northern Ireland mired in tribalism.

As Lord Trimble pointed out last week, the potential fall-out here is that Sinn Fein would use a Yes vote to press for a referendum on Northern Ireland's future in the Union and the issue would become the centrepiece of next year's election

"Ulster politics is going to go into the deep freeze as a result of all that," he said.

"It will polarise and further divide like never before, so we won't see any progressive change in politics for at least a decade."

The Spectator letter was one of hundreds sent to the magazine last week after Fraser Nelson, its thoroughly Scottish editor, fearful that his country could sleepwalk into independence, asked readers to submit letters to Scottish voters asking them to "stay with us" by voting No. Hundreds responded: a selection of about 30 was published last week.

Unlike those running the plodding, pedestrian and economically obsessed No campaign, the writers were emotional and inspirational in expressing their passion for the United Kingdom. I saw no contribution from Northern Ireland.

Now, I'm well aware that Ulster Protestants are bad at expressing their emotions positively. As David Trimble explained in Oslo in 1998, in his fine Nobel lecture, they are culturally conditioned to scepticism about idealistic, but unrealistic, speeches.

"Instinctively," he said, "I identify with the person who said that when he heard a politician talk of his vision, he recommended him to consult an optician."

Inevitably, this self-deprecating joke caused deep offence to nationalists, who thought it was getting at them and added it to the grievance list.

They didn't bother to read the additional observation that "our passion for precision is often confused with an indifference to idealism".

Though culturally inhibited from writing "stay with us" love letters, Lord Trimble is passionate about the Union.

So, too, are hundreds of thousands of Northern Ireland unionists, but no one is articulating their concern in a way that would recruit the middle ground.

The banners and sashes of the loyal orders and the protests of frustrated loyalists aren't going to enlist Catholics to support them in their devotion to Queen and Country.

Many Catholics who want to stay in the Union will stay at home, or vote nationalist for the sake of giving unionist politicians a good kicking.

My natural optimism is sorely challenged by Northern Ireland politics. Rereading the Trimble Nobel speech, I was depressed by how unrealised have been his hopes for the Assembly: "Like any parliament, it needs to be more than a cockpit for competing victimisations."

He quoted his hero, Edmund Burke, the 18th century political philosopher and parliamentarian: "Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and an advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where not local purposes, nor local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good resulting from the general reason of the whole."

Falling, as usual, into the republican trap, Northern Irish unionists chose to destroy a decent, gifted moderate and instead follow the mean-minded, parochial sectarian banner of Ian Paisley.

It's about time Ulster unionists recognised that the Union really is under threat.

They would win a referendum, of course, this time round, at least, but if they want a future worth having, their politicians will have to think of the general good, rather than the narrow interests of their tribal electorate.

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