This week a leading Orangeman in Northern Ireland called for Ulster Scots living in the province to get the vote in 2014.
“We are stakeholders as well,” said The Grand Lodge’s David Hume (now there’s a Scottish name with pedigree) before adding: “Surely a decision such as this should not ignore our input?”
Dr Hume, of course, is on a hiding to nothing. His Ulster Scots - descendents of 17th planters who crossed the North Channel long before any Treaty of Union - have no chance of a vote.
But what struck me was not what he said - it was when and where he said it. The historian was speaking at an event marking the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, when hundreds of thousands of signed a petition against Home Rule. He remembered that Scots Unionists, in 1912, backed their counterparts in what was to become Northern Ireland.
Was it time, he was suggesting, to return the favour? His own timing was interesting. Only now, five years after Alex Salmond first took power and a year and a half after the SNP’s historical 2011 absolute majority, are unionists in Northern Ireland taking a proper look over their shoulders at Scotland.
Their response, like a man groggily coming to after being hit on the back of the head, appears confused and angry. Maybe I am overstating this, and I am happy to hear other views (that is what comments are for at the bottom of this blog) but Irish unionists can sound as shrill as they are surprised by the SNP’s rise.
Take Peter Robinson. The Northern Ireland First Minister - of the DUP - this month talked of defending Scotland’s place in the UK with a Saltire in one hand and a Union flag. That is an expression with a ring to it: after all it echoes Danny Morrison of Sinn Fein’s famous remarks that Republicans would win with a “ballot box in one hand and an armalite in the other”.
Back in January - in one of the first interventions from the North on Scottish politics, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliot made the cover of the Belfast Telegraph with a stark warning on the SNP. “It is ironic,” he said, “that the constitutional approach of Alex Salmond poses a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA.”
But such remarks are rare. People who know a lot more about the North than me keep making the same point: Northern Ireland politics are insular; Northern Ireland politicians are used to the world looking at them, not them looking at the world.
The same holds of the media. Outlets in Northern Ireland are starting to show more interest in Scotland - but still far less so than, say, newspapers in Spain or its (potentially) breakaway regions of Catalunya and Euskadi.
One writer said to closely reflect mainstream unionist thinking is Ed Curran, a columnist at the Belfast Telegraph. He points out unionist politicians - after the Good Friday Agreement - rarely give the kind of tub-thumping pro-union speeches that Mr Robinson made on Scottish independence. The future of the North, after all, appears settled for the time-being. The UK Government, crucially, has said it has no strategic interest in the province. It has made no such declaration about Scotland.
Mr Curran wrote: “Whatever Scotland elects to do, Northern Ireland has no significant natural resources, no strategic role in global defences and not a lot going for it other than its magnificent people, scenery and quality of life.
“No one should doubt the serious and potentially dangerous bearing Mr Robinson’s Scottish counterpart, Alex Salmond, could have on the future stability of Northern Ireland.
“A century after the Irish Home Rule crisis and the signing of the Ulster Covenant, we have Mr Salmond, with his tartan scarf wrapped firmly around his neck, mischievously egging on the English at every turn. In doing so, he opens up a debate as to why the English taxpayer should foot the bill for poorer regions, such as Northern Ireland.”
That may be the line that worries Belfast leaders the most. Could wider constitutional debate (and the widespread but profoundly inaccurate belief that England bankrolls Scotland) prompt English voters to question their financial commitment to the Northern Ireland Assembly?
The province, after all, has no North Sea oil to pay its way in the union. And the Republic of Ireland, right now, may not be in a position to support a struggling northern economy without UK help. Such factors have driven down support for immediate Irish re-unification is low, polls suggest, even among people who would culturally identify more as Irish than British.
But what do Republicans think of the Scottish question? Their line is clear: self-determination is good; it is up to Scots to decide what they do in the independence vote. BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme took a look at Northern Irish attitudes to Scottish independence this spring, following some Belfast politicians as they toured Scotland. One, Barry McElduff, a Sinn Fein MLA - the Stormont equivalent of an MSP - summed up the Republican view.
“It is no secret that I and everyone else in Sinn Fein are working towards independence for all of Ireland,” he said. “That is why my emphasis was on the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own arrangements for governance.
“After all, this is what we are seeking for the Irish people - national self-determination for the Irish people, without external impediment or interference.”
One last question from me: how would Scots respond to “interference” - or should we call it “help” - from Northern Irish unionists in the run up to the referendum. Let us know what you think.
My thanks to my Herald colleagues Gerry Braiden and Neil Mackay for their help putting together this blog.
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