Belfast Telegraph

Scots won't show Union the red card

Unionists can relax. The eurozone meltdown means Scottish independence forcing a Union break-up is a non-starter, writes Henry McDonald

Back in 1995, I co-produced/presented a radio documentary on the origins and politics of sectarianism in Scotland. The cast-list of this one-hour programme for BBC Radio 5 Live was eclectic.

They ranged from a rising star within the Scottish Orange Order to an Edinburgh-born pro-Sinn Fein republican. The two men shared only one thing in common: they were both fans of Hibernian football club.

Among the most interesting comments on the show was a contribution from a member of the Scottish UDA on how serious the majority of loyalists in Scotland actually were about the cause of Ulster.

'Dougie', as we called him, had served time in prison for UDA activities in Scotland and was full of contempt for his fellow loyalists in his country.

He made the point that every alternate Saturday during the Scottish Premiership season up to 40,000 Rangers' supporters would sing Derry's Walls, cry No Surrender or chant even more objectionable, bigoted tunes at Ibrox stadium. They would express their loyalty to the Queen and their solidarity for the UDA, or UVF, on the other side of the Irish Sea. In perhaps the most telling part of our documentary, Dougie added, with some bitterness, that the overwhelming majority of these singers and chanters were merely bi-weekly loyalists. When it came to the business of politics and, even worse, paramilitarism, they were mostly bags of wind.

Dougie recalled that he and fellow Scottish UDA members distributed leaflets outside Ibrox calling on loyalists in Glasgow to demonstrate in their thousands against a proposed visit of Gerry Adams to Govan courtesy of an invite from future Respect founder, MP and Big Brother contestant George Galloway.

When Adams did turn up, however, there were just under 400 local loyalists demonstrating against his presence. Dougie and his tattooed pals were left virtually on their own to protest.

This anecdote, told freely and frankly by a dedicated UDA man, revealed how much the politics of loyalism was becoming less relevant to the politics of a society on the edge of devolution.

The Blair landslide and the devolving of major powers to the Edinburgh parliament were only two years away. Most Scots had other things on their minds than the backwash from the end of the Troubles, or the existential battles of unionists in Northern Ireland.

Of course, sectarian passions have far from disappeared in Scottish life. The recent furore over the death-threats to Neil Lennon and the Scottish Executive's attempts to outlaw sectarian chanting at football matches underline how virulent the presence of sectarianism still is.

Yet, overall, Scotland is becoming more and more detached from sectarian politics, the Orange Order's influence on the new establishment in Edinburgh is negligible; support for independence from the UK grows.

Independence should be a worrying development, on the surface at least, for unionists in Northern Ireland. While backing for the UDA and UVF in Scotland was always a minority interest, there remain strong social, cultural and family ties between unionists and Scots - particularly on the Ayrshire coast and the central belt.

If the Scots broke away from the Union, it would undoubtedly be a major dent in Ulster unionist morale. Combined with the growing influence of Sinn Fein south of the Irish border, a Scottish break with the UK would seem to unionists like they were caught in a constitutional pincer movement pushing them inexorably out of the Union.

Yet this perception of existential doom may be more apparent than real, because the euro-elephant in the living room comes into play.

The eurozone crisis has made Scots think twice about the SNP's early post-devolution concept of independence within Europe. While Scottish voters admire their extremely able, articulate First Minister Alex Salmond (left), the SNP-led government has been coy thus far in offering Scots a blatant Yes/No to breaking the union referendum, probably because, in all likelihood, the electorate would not go that far to the edge.

Scots like having an increasing degree of autonomy from London, but they seem unwilling to swap the pound for the euro. Moreover, like their Ulster cousins, the average Scot still receives a massive subvention from the Treasury compared to their English counterparts.

The crisis within the euro has had a similar, if unspoken, effect in the Republic The country that once outstripped the UK in terms of living standards is virtually broke.

Paradoxically, while Sinn Fein is enjoying a surge in the south, the prospect of the Republic absorbing the public sector-reliant north looks more remote than ever.

Thus the dichotomy between symbolism and economic reality. Symbolically, Scottish separatism and Sinn Fein bullishness will send shivers down some unionist spines.

But when they take a cold, hard look at the economics of independence, or unity, particularly from the vantage-point of living in Sterling-land, they might look on with less alarm at recent developments either in Edinburgh or Dublin.

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