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Ulster should keep eye on any move towards Scottish split

When he stands up to address the SNP conference tomorrow, Alex Salmond will tell his party that the target of 20 Westminster seats - three times more than it has at the moment - is within its grasp.

He will then raise the prospect of Parliament "being hung by a Scottish rope". This is his own, rather sinister image, one he floated first just a few days ago. It is a rather graphic illustration of his simple strategy: get 20 seats in a parliament which is hung and the SNP could exert significant influence on the governing party.

Mr Salmond wants those 20 seats, not as an end in itself, but as a lever to wrest concessions from the UK Government, be it Conservative or Labour, after the election and there is really only one concession he is interested in: a referendum on independence.

Anyone looking at all this scheming and plotting from the other side of the Irish Sea might be tempted to dismiss it as a sideshow that has nothing to do with Northern Ireland or its future, but they would be wrong.

While it is true that Mr Salmond and the SNP are focused purely on breaking Scotland away from the United Kingdom, the reverberations from the progress they make will be felt in Belfast and Dublin.

Just imagine for a second that Scotland did what Mr Salmond wants and split from the UK. It would keep the Crown, the pound and, possibly, even some UK military bases.

And just imagine what would happen if it made this new system work - that would inevitably lead to calls in other parts of the UK for a similar division.

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Now, at the moment, the polls suggest the SNP would not win an independence referendum, but who knows what would happen after a year or so of sustained aggravation between the Scottish government in Edinburgh and a Conservative government in London.

Indeed, it is not hard to see how the north-south axis over Hadrian's Wall might become strained. If, as expected, David Cameron wins the election, he will do so without much help from his Scottish party.

The Conservatives have one seat in Scotland at the moment and while they may double this to two or even, if they have a very good campaign, three, that still represents a negligible return from a country with 59 constituencies up for grabs.

What that means is that the Conservatives will be seen by some to be ruling Scotland by default, setting policies in Westminster that were not voted for by the vast majority of Scots.

The incoming Conservative government is also likely to impose tough public spending cuts on Scotland, which is more reliant on the public sector than England. This will all create tensions and the SNP will be quick to exploit them.

So, while observers in Northern Ireland might tune off from the SNP conference, seeing it as nothing more than a distraction from the real issues of the economy or Afghanistan, they should see the bigger picture.

Mr Salmond has a clear and well-defined strategy. It is to get 20 seats, squeeze a referendum on independence from the incoming Conservative government, exploit grievances with that government - claiming it has no mandate in Scotland - and change the mood of the country in favour of independence.

Mr Cameron used his conference speech last week to stress his absolute commitment to the Union, the whole Union of the United Kingdom. He knows how the fracturing of one part of it, along Hadrian's Wall, would impact on the rest.

He is very aware that he cannot ignore the Scottish Nationalists if he wants to keep the Union intact because, if one part goes, it will be much, much harder to keep the rest intact.

The north-south axis in the UK may seem irrelevant to the people of Belfast or Broughshane, but if that goes cheaply, what price on the east-west axis going the same way?

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