Scottish independence can bring a new equal form of cooperation with Ireland and the rest of the UK. Rather than causing isolation or division, independent countries work together and respect each other. That’s the reality of the new relationship which is forming across Britain and Ireland.
After centuries of conflict, institutions like the British and Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the British and Irish Council reflect a change for the better. They were born in tandem with the Good Friday Agreement – predominately to maintain peace and stability in Northern Ireland. However, with the growth of devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales they have also become forums for discussions between all nations in the region.
Joe McHugh TD, Co-Chair of the BIPA
My interview with Joe McHugh Teachta Dála (TD) – the Co-Chair of the British and Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA) – confirms this. It also hints at the opportunities for Scotland to play a greater role within such institutions after independence.
Joe, hailing from Donegal, understands the interdependence of the islands. There has been a great deal of immigration from the North-West of Ireland to Scotland across the centuries, especially to Glasgow. As Joe points out “At a local level, it was Donnegal men who set up Celtic Football Club. Today there is trade and visits from our community to Scotland. There’s also a tradition in folklore. So there remains a link across the water.”
This link can be enhanced through an independent Scotland playing a full part in BIPA and the British and Irish Council. The Assembly currently gives priority to independent countries. This means that London and Dublin Governments receive 5 times the number of committee places as the Scottish Parliament. Despite being viewed as a minor institution, it does conduct policy work and discussion on sovereignty, European affairs, economic interests and environmental and social affairs through bi-annual plenary meetings.
The British and Irish Council – which hosts leadership meetings – has a stronger Scottish link due to its secretariat in Edinburgh. McHugh is keen to stress that the Irish Government has not set plans in place for an independent Scotland, but that Dublin is paying close attention to developments. Irish academic Dr Paul Gillespie, for instance, stated that in the event of a Yes vote “the British and Irish Council would take on a new role, arguably a more important role.”
‘The Irish referendum turned dramatically in the last week’
McHugh said, “There’s a very important referendum in Scotland. One thing I’ve learnt about referenda is that they evolve and change right up to vote. Without wanting to pre-empt the outcome in Scotland, Ireland has recent experiences in how results can change. The referendum on abolishing the Seanad Éireann was showing a support for abolishing it – then it turned dramatically in the last week. It’s an amazing power the referendum – every citizen can have a say.”
With that helpful hint towards late poll surges, it’s important to consider to renewal of British-Irish relations from troubled times to a deepening concordat.
‘Ireland-UK relations have never been better’
“Relations have never been better”, says McHugh. “The UK is Ireland’s closest political ally & friend. Economic ties are very important and there’s a lot of cross border work.”
I mention the 2012 joint statement between David Cameron and Edda Kenny which signified a growing willingness to find mutual interests. However, for Joe it was the symbolism of the Queen’s visit to Ireland which resonates beyond the politics.
“That was symbolism of seismic importance. There was apology, maturity, a reflection of nearly 800 years of deep rooted conflict. It was very powerful. It created a space for politicians to grow new relationships.”
This change took decades of steady progress through institutions.
“In 1990 the British-Irish Parliament Body was fundamentally set up to get people talking. You have a framework now through the British Irish Council as the heads of governments meet on a bi-yearly basis. There are concrete issues discussed now like Youth Unemployment. That shows that the trust is there.”
Of course the most recent challenge within this process was establishing peace in Northern Ireland through the Good Friday Agreement.
Joe describes the context:
“As has been said before, to set up the institutions was perhaps seen as the easy bit. The next biggest challenge was the constitutional challenge. There will be challenges ahead. As the delegation who went to Belfast last week – the appetite for engagement was great. The willingness to work on areas of health – like hospitals – was great. Everyone – Unionist and Nationalist – was asking questions.”
Progress in Northern Ireland
I asked whether he remains confident in the power sharing arrangement in Belfast.
“Yes, I do. Some things will have to change and adapt. The Good Friday Agreement has inbuilt flexibility to represent the rapidly changing Northern Ireland. There is a complex mix. There was Belfast representatives in both the British and Irish Olympic Teams, for instance. The vast majority of Northern Irish people have been used to the impact of peace in the last 15 years, a better peace than before and that is worth supporting.”
This progress has also been based on a gradual thawing of ancient tensions between Dublin and London – which are now so far gone they are nothing but history lessons for the current generation. As Ireland approaches a decade of commemoration – a century since the Easter Rising, Anglo-Irish Treaty and Civil War – that history matters in a new way.
“On personal reflection, we were brought up with a certain anti-English story from a colonial, oppressed history. It was a certain down trodden story of the famine and invasion. Ireland has progressed from that. People are more comfortable in their own view of history rather than an absolutist perspective.
For another perspective, 100 years ago from this year many Irish people died fighting in the same trenches as Englishman, Scots and Welsh. The current government is the first to recognise that sacrifice.”
A new role in Europe
Yet besides a thawing of a historical animosity, Ireland has looked beyond Britain. The European Union from the ’70s onwards has played a key role in Irish diplomacy, foreign affairs and cooperation. I asked whether the EU has transformed Ireland’s outlook and widened its horizons.
“It has been important”, Joe says. “The European market is a huge market. Ireland has become a gateway for American investment as it sits between these areas. Ireland has positioned itself as an English speaking member of the European Union. That’s changed things. Dublin is no longer an Irish city – it is an international city. Ryanair has played its part in bringing in this interest.”
There is a comfortable European tendency to Ireland’s political life. It gives their politicians a quiet confidence and a focus on opportunities. They don’t blame Brussels; they can’t blame Westminster. That’s what the responsibility of independence brings.
The road towards governance by mutual interests – be in the North, with Westminster or with Brussels – has been a long one. For centuries our islands were defined by animosity – but no longer. The reality of cooperation between Britain and Ireland is now a shining light for an independent Scotland. There is no going back to past conflicts. The shared future of many independent and interdependent countries is now ours to build.
Photography by Aileen McKay