Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 20 November 2014

Scottish 'No' camp doesn't want Ulster unionists support

Unionist leaders have pledged to campaign for a No vote in Scotland's independence referendum. The trouble is that the pro-Union camp doesn't actually want them, writes Henry McDonald

Scotland will got to the vote booth on September 18
Scotland will got to the vote booth on September 18
Lord Trimble
Opposition to Scottish independence is based on economic reality and the type of unionism espoused by Mike Nesbitt

One of the most illuminating voices on a Radio 5 Live documentary I presented and co-produced about Scottish sectarianism nearly two decades ago was a member of the UDA from Greenock Morton.

The shaven-headed, tattooed, denim jacket-wearing west of Scotland loyalist was brutally honest about the dedication of, in his words, the "45-minute, each-way, twice-a-month loyalists at Ibrox" to the unionist cause.

The UDA veteran was bemoaning the fact that, when he and his colleagues turned up to protest outside Govan Town Hall against the presence of Gerry Adams in 1995 – the Sinn Fein president being an invited guest speaker by none other than the now anti-independence George Galloway – only about 40 local loyalists joined them.

Even though 45,000-plus Rangers fans sing Derry's Walls and The Sash on alternate Saturdays, the Scottish UDA stalwart was disgusted that not even a thousand of the Ibrox faithful could be bothered turning up for a real political battle against one of their-then mortal enemies.

His cynicism put into context the true importance of Northern Ireland for Scottish politics, which was rather nominal compared to the great issues of devolution, de-industrialisation, North Sea oil and a Labour/Left-inclined country dominated by Tory southern England.

It is worth recalling the disillusioned UDA man's frank and realistic assessment of how far down people's agendas the Ulster issue was – and still is – when considering the role of Northern Ireland-based unionist parties and institutions could have in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum.

Because, in reality, the last thing the No/pro-Union campaign needs in Scotland is for unionist politicians, Orangemen and Union flag-waving loyalists crossing the Irish Sea to oppose Alex Salmond's plans for an independent Scotland.

Unlike the Ulster variety, Scottish unionism doesn't need, or indeed want, to fly the Union flag 365 days per year, or even on 18 designated days.

As the Union flag has come to be associated with Rangers supporters and the Ulster loyalist cause in Scotland's central belt, pro-Union forces, ranging from the much-weakened Scottish Tories to Labour, the Liberal Democrats and various pressure groups, won't be waving the red, white and blue during their campaign to save the Union. Instead, their arguments will be rational, rather than emotional.

The pro-Union/No camp say Scotland and Britain are "better together", because of the UK-wide universal health service, the welfare state, a common currency that isn't in the crisis-stricken eurozone, a united foreign policy and a sense of economic certainty compared to the unchartered waters of a smaller, separatist state.

Their 'unionism' has more to do with the Queen on the back of a £1 coin than whether or not a flag can fly atop a council building every single day of the year.

Talking to the pro-Union Better Together campaign, you get the distinct impression that the last thing they want is for the Orange Order to be marching en masse through the streets of Glasgow, or Edinburgh, this year, headed up by the likes of Peter Robinson, or Mike Nesbitt, in support of a No vote.

Scottish unionists do not wish to have the pro-Union cause associated with one particular religion, or ethnic grouping, albeit that Protestantism is still the dominant faith throughout Scotland.

Moreover, in the central belt, there is a substantial Catholic population of Irish extraction, who have been, until recently, traditionally supportive of Scotland's main pro-Union party, Scottish Labour.

Although in recent years the Scottish Nationalists have eaten into the pro-Labour Catholic vote in Scotland's urban heartland, the No camp are convinced this constituency will balk at backing an independence vote this autumn.

They do not want to alienate Scotland's Catholics by having their pro-Union argument coloured by red, white and blue and shouted out by cries of "No Surrender".

Although the plebiscite in September is probably going to be closer than the polls suggest, all the public surveys so far point to a No vote.

Therefore, if Alastair Darling and his campaigners do triumph, there will surely be lessons to be learnt for pro-Union politicians on this side of the Irish Sea. The arguments from the No side have been fought on the basis of economic reasoning and hard-nosed fiscal logic.

As someone who lives in the Republic, with its ailing, expensive, barely semi-public health service and an unemployment rate still double that of the UK, there are obvious fronts on which a pro-Union case can be made in Northern Ireland.

One based on economic self-interest, rather than emotional attachments to flags, symbols and parades.

In a society where the Catholic population is growing and its middle class expanding, smarter unionist politicians should be accentuating the benefits of Union – the free-at-point-of-use health service, for instance, rather than with triumphalist parading and an obsession with battles from the 17th century.

So, not only should Robinson, Nesbitt, the Orange Order and David Trimble (who surprisingly and to the fury of Scotland's No camp strayed into the Scottish debate in a speech there two years ago) stay out of Scotland's fight.

They should also watch and learn a few things from it.

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