Belfast Telegraph

Ulster unionists are orphans in any Scottish divorce

By Mary Kenny

Sport often reveals true feelings about national loyalties. When the Scots watch an international game, their allegiance is usually to anyone but England.

But when Rangers play Celtic, Rangers considers itself British and flies a Union flag, while Celtic flies the Irish Tricolour.

The sovereignty of a nation is complicated and a largely unconsidered angle in the looming referendum on whether the United Kingdom will break up if Scotland becomes independent is the impact on Northern Ireland.

Ulster unionists have always championed the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but their attachment has been to Scotland, rather than to England. The university Ulster Protestants aspire to is neither Queens in Belfast nor Trinity in Dublin, but St Andrew's in Scotland.

If Scotland quits the Union, where does that leave Ulster unionists? Orphaned, basically. If their closest kinsmen within the UK spurn the UK, they are out on a limb.

The referendum is set for 2014. If Alex Salmond cannot be sure of a Yes vote for Scottish independence, he is nonetheless riding high in confidence and a growing awareness of Scottish identity.

The break-up of Scotland and England is being likened to a divorce, or possibly an agreed separation. Divorce means total dissolution.

The other option, Devo Max, or maximum devolution, would be more like a civilised agreement for the partners to live separate lives.

Total separation means full Scottish autonomy and the end of the UK. Devo Max is Home Rule - Scotland having much greater control over its own affairs, but retaining the Crown and shared British institutions. Again, where does all this leave allegiances in Northern Ireland? Some moderate Ulster unionists have traditionally seen themselves as both Irish and British but if there is no such thing as 'British' anymore, where is the Ulster unionist identity?

The break-up of a political union is no small thing, because treaties and cultures get knitted together over the centuries. Labour voters in Scotland maintain a historic sense of solidarity with their English comrades.

Yet for all his confident talk of an independent Scotland, Mr Salmond can be cautious. He no longer boasts about the "arc of prosperity" from Scotland to Ireland and Iceland.

Irish independence, though democratically supported, was bought dear - and, in the end, total sovereignty usually eludes small nations.

There is one opportunity the Scottish referendum could open for Ireland: maybe now is the time to claim Rockall, that set of rocks between Ulster and Scotland beneath whose base lie rich deposits of oil.

If 'Britain' ceases to exist, Rockall surely qualifies as Irish territory. But which flag will it fly? The Tricolour or the Red Hand of Ulster?


From Belfast Telegraph