We need to talk about Joanna Cherry. The Scottish nationalist MP has been suggesting Scotland could avoid a second referendum and instead follow the Irish route to independence, and it’s such a shocking and irresponsible opinion, and it’s so lacking in historical and political awareness, that I don’t really feel like I can write about anything else today. So, Joanna Cherry and Irish history it is.

What Ms Cherry said was as follows: another referendum is not the only option on independence and thinking that it is reinforces the power of the SNP’s adversaries. “One hundred years ago,” she said, “Irish independence came about not as a result of a referendum but as a result of a treaty negotiated between Irish parliamentarians and the British Government after nationalist MPs had won the majority of Irish seats in the 1918 General Election and withdrawn to form a provisional government in Dublin.”

“While no-one wants to replicate the violence that preceded those negotiations,” Ms Cherry went on, “the Treaty is in legal and constitutional terms a clear precedent which shows that a constituent part of the UK can leave and become independent by a process of negotiation after a majority of pro-independence MPs win an election in that constituent part.”

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Let’s look at all of that in more detail, shall we? Ms Cherry says Irish independence came about as a result of an Irish/British treaty after nationalist success in the 1918 election, but that, I’m afraid, is an assertion utterly lacking in context. The negotiations that led to the 1921 treaty did not come about directly from the 1918 election, they came about because of the war of independence; it was the result not of a peaceful election but of violent action and any attempt to separate the Irish precedent from the violence, which is what Ms Cherry appears to be trying to do, is misleading and wrong.

Let’s also look at another part of Ms Cherry’s commentary. “No-one wants to replicate the violence that preceded the negotiations”, she says, and on the face of it that’s a call for peaceful action. But it’s also anti-historical. There wasn’t just violence “preceding” Irish independence, the violence got worse as independence progressed and developed into years of terrorism. The story of Irish independence is the story of violent division before, during, and after and there is simply no way of somehow removing or sidelining the violence so it can be used as a peaceful precedent for Scotland.

If Ms Cherry needs reminding why I’m saying all of this, the recent House of Commons briefing paper, Parliament and Northern Ireland, 1921-2021, provides useful context. It’s written by the man who wrote this column for many years, David Torrance, and goes through the constitutional history of the island of Ireland in the greatest detail, underlining in the process how long, complex and violent it has been. It also makes the point that a lot of the early history has slipped from public consciousness, which may explain why Ms Cherry feels able to use it as a precedent for Scotland.

So why does it all matter? It matters because the SNP is at the point where there’s an internal battle going on over the best tactics for achieving independence and Ms Cherry is an influential figure in that battle. I would have thought that makes it extra important she gets her history right and thinks carefully about the consequences of using Ireland as a precedent for Scotland. I fear she hasn’t done so because of the flaw that runs through so many nationalists.

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What I mean is the idea that it couldn’t happen here. Ms Cherry doesn’t appear to consider for a minute that the debate in Scotland could ever erupt into violence, but are we sure of that? Many Americans thought the same way before the riots at the Capitol. The SNP MP Steven Bonnar also tweeted recently that “we will fight to the death for our country” and I guess your view on whether that sort of comment could ever lead to actual violence will depend on how literal you think Mr Bonnar was being. He said he was joking.

I also think anyone who knows anything about the mood in Scotland should be cautious about thinking there could never be violence here in future. Many Scottish nationalists are furious that they’re not getting their own way, but we should also be aware that Scotland has many of the same tensions as Northern Ireland for many of the same reasons: economic, religious, constitutional. The Loyalist bands are stronger and more vociferous in Scotland than ever. And there’s already been violence. Remember the Glasgow riots in 2019 when the Irish unity march was met by counter-demonstrators? And the arson attack on the Tall Cranes pub in Govan? What makes anyone think that sort of violence could never happen again, or get worse even?

What I’m saying is that the only responsible thing to do here is to make ourselves aware of the historical backdrop before we start suggesting that the answer to Scotland’s future can be found in Ireland’s past. Perhaps Ms Cherry should also remember how her party got here in the first place. In her article for The National newspaper, she writes that the SNP is riding high and support for independence is at unprecedented levels, which it is. “We would never have got this far,” she says, “had we … not been prepared to be radical and to think outside the box”.

The obvious implication of Ms Cherry’s words is that nationalists need to be radical again and look to apparent alternatives to a referendum, such as Ireland. But the SNP hasn’t got here because of radicalism, it’s got here because of a wily ability to use every situation to maximise difference and grievance and underline the apparent need for independence – in other words, exactly the opposite of radical. Ms Cherry says it is foolish and dangerous to rule out alternatives to a 2014-style referendum. But may I suggest that, from her point of view, it is just as foolish to ignore the reasons why the SNP has reached this historical high.

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