Belfast Telegraph

Should the people of Rathlin Island join Scotland and remain in the EU?

It's not that fanciful; the north coast is a world apart, says Malachi O'Doherty

Some say, half-seriously, that Rathlin Island should be part of Scotland now. On a clear day, there are other islands, too, in view from the north coast. From Ballintoy you can see Islay and even make out the cliff face serrations in the evening light.

Much more easy to see is the Mull of Kintyre from Ballycastle. On a clear day there you can make out individual houses and wave back to wind farm pillars with their swooping blades. In short, you are already almost in Scotland.

There are signs of it in the language. Portballintrae ends with the Scottish Gaelic word for a beach, as distinct from Ballintra in south Donegal.

And there must have been a time when the islands and coasts of Scotland and Ulster seemed to people trading by sea to be the one region, as far removed from Dublin as from Edinburgh, from Belfast as from Glasgow.

So, even if the idea is only raised in mischief that Rathlin Island might be counted part of Scotland and follow it back into the EU through independence, the joke still reflects a reality.

And that reality is that identity doesn't begin and end at the boundaries of the nation, but bleeds across borders and seeps across channels.

It is quite reassuring that some people on Rathlin can be so blithe and pragmatic about citizenship that they make the case for going with Scotland. It's an example to us all of a flexibility about identity that might have saved us a lot of trouble over the years.

It syncs with an idea mooted closer to home in the past fortnight, certainly in some conversations that I have been part of both on social media and in pubs: couldn't we all go with Scotland? Or would we be better off in a united Ireland? A question that has even been voiced by the scrupulously apolitical Rory McIlroy.

Or maybe we could have a new Union or federation of Ireland and Scotland, even inside the Commonwealth - if that makes some people happier about it.

These ideas rise from a sense that we have been bounced out of a union in which we had a veto by our neighbours in a smaller Union, the UK, which allows us no veto at all. What follows from that is the humiliating confirmation that the UK isn't a Union in the sense that Europe is; that the big decisions are taken by the biggest partner, England, and that we might as well be a colony.

Okay, we pay our taxes and get our health service - a far better deal than Kenya or India ever got as colonies. But we are passengers on the England bus and we don't get to say where it goes or does not go.

And, if people are discussing impossible ideas about how we might get out of a UK that, for once, looks like it could be dragging us down, then that is because they are now uncomfortable with the Union in ways they did not foresee.

And why not entertain crazy ideas in crazy times? The past two weeks have seen upheavals in British politics which were not even imagined before the referendum.

What was supposed to happen was that the Remain vote would win, but that the Leave vote would have been strong enough to so unnerve David Cameron that he would make room for Boris Johnson in the Cabinet as a successor-in-waiting.

Now, so many heads have rolled that nothing would be particularly surprising.

Northern Ireland is the only polity in the UK that is actually boring right now.

Of course, the radical new ideas would also have their uncomfortable consequences. Scottish independence will produce a hard border between Scotland and England.

Throw Rathlin Island into the Scottish cluster and suddenly people coming across to Ballycastle for their shopping would have to show their passports at the harbour.

As, of course, would those in what is currently called Great Britain when moving between Scotland and England.

That people are contemplating such radical change, unsure whether they are indulging a fantasy or airing a tenable proposal, shows how unnerved they are by Brexit.

University of Ulster academic and former Alliance candidate Duncan Morrow articulated the dislocated feeling among the Northern Irish in a recent article.

He wrote: "Unlike Scotland, the divided nature of Northern Ireland's politics means that there is no champion in its Government for majority opinion and no clear articulation of the existential implications for Northern Ireland of leaving the EU."

Like Scotland we have a majority that wants to stay in the EU. We have a First Minister who regards that majority as irrelevant, given that the referendum was conducted on an all-UK context. It seems not to bother her that she doesn't speak for the region, but then she never did. No one ever did.

So, we have no one to speak for the feelings of the Remain majority as Scotland has in Nicola Sturgeon.

If political thinking has turned almost loopy then that is, in part, because the concern for the usurpation of the popular will is not being expressed in the formal political arena.

And the eccentric ideas being bandied about seem no dafter than the real politics at a time when leadership across the board seems unnervingly incompetent.

Mrs Foster regards Brexit as a done deal. The onus on the rest of us is to get used to that and learn to live with it. But that's no answer.

Sinn Fein, similarly, has no credibility as a pro-EU party, having opposed all past progress, urged No votes in all past referenda. Its conception of the Republic of a united Ireland is entirely different from the quaint pragmatism of those Rathlin islanders who would be happy to switch tomorrow from being British or Irish to being Scottish.

In the republican tradition identity is a holy thing, a given. It was paid for in blood. It is right because it is right.

Others are discovering a fluidity in the whole concept of identity, feeling it shift - despite all past conditioning.

Therefore they dream of a Scottish Rathlin, or a united Ireland, or a federation of Scotland and Ireland. Yet all the ferment is below the surface. One indicator of it is the rush to get Irish passports.

Those passports will not make much practical difference for people. They'll do little more than get them into the shorter queues in European airports.

But people want a tangible symbol of their refusal of the new, post-referendum way of being British.

The last thing they want to be now is British in a Britain in which England makes all the calls.

Belfast Telegraph


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