As I watch the last few days of campaigning before Scotland decides whether to vote to be an independent nation, I’m struck by the relative absence of Ireland from this debate. If Scotland votes yes, the United Kingdom will be reduced in size for the first time since 1922, when the southern twenty-six counties of Ireland became the Irish Free State, an independent dominion within the Commonwealth.
Certainly, the differences are significant. Irish independence came about through a combination of legislation, guerrilla warfare, and treaty negotiations; Scotland will enjoy a peaceful referendum in which those south of the border cannot even vote. In Ireland, multiple generations experienced violent failed rebellions as well as decades of constitutional agitation; in Scotland, modern separatism has shallower roots. But I think that the Irish case offers a useful point of comparison nonetheless.
Political dissolution is never the end of the story, and it won’t be here, either
First of all, context matters. In 1922, the British Empire was at its geographical height. Critics of Irish separatism asked why it would want to leave the most powerful empire in the world to go it alone. In fact, it helped to transform that empire. Irish leaders successfully advocated for dominions to have greater autonomy, notably through the Statute of Westminster of 1931 which established legislative equality. The Irish independence movement also inspired nationalist movements in India and elsewhere. There’s been a lot of debate about whether, and how easily, an independent Scotland could join the European Union. Again, there are commenters warning about the dangers of going it alone. But it’s certain that this vote will change the EU, putting rhetoric about a ‘Europe of the regions’ to a test that will be closely watched by separatist minorities across the continent.
Closer to home, the Irish case suggests that forgetting may be an important part of forgiving. In the immediate aftermath of Irish independence, English commentators were obsessed with proclaiming how thoroughly the English had already forgotten the Irish. The “No” campaign has been tepid from the start, the rather tame “Better Together” slogan suggesting a last-ditch effort to avoid a romantic break-up more than a vision of a shared political future. I suspect that a certain phase of amnesia is inevitable in the aftermath of decolonization. British commentators right now are comparing a ‘yes’ vote to an amputation and using #disenfranchised on Twitter to express their distress. But in the event a ‘no’ vote, it will not be surprising if there’s a period in which the British press is either eerily silent on Scotland or keen to emphasize how little anyone thinks about it now.
Yet political dissolution is never the end of the story, and it won’t be here, either. Irish migration to England increased in the 1930s, after nearly a decade of independence; in World War II, thousands of Irish men and women fought for the British and worked in their munitions factories and hospitals. Modern British culture is studded with Irish elements, from literature and music to personal heritage and sporting allegiances. An independent government north of the border will change many things, but cultural and personal connections will endure and evolve. They might even help foster future political co-operation, as happened when the Irish and British governments co-operated on the Northern Irish peace process in the 1990s. Ultimately, and perhaps paradoxically, the Irish example should give hope to Scottish separatists and unionists alike. The vote on 18th September will alter political institutions in unforeseeable ways, but the contentious, composite cultures of the British Isles will persist.