Friday, January 28, 2011

Salmond on "Northern Ireland and the Scottish Question"

As a footnote to the recent minor hoo-haa on here concerning Alex Salmond’s alleged ethnic nationalism in favour of the Ulster-Scots, I received this week a fascinating article written by him in September 1995 for the Belfast-based Fortnight magazine.

In the introduction to the piece titled “Northern Ireland and the Scottish Question”, he is described as the National Convener for the SNP (a fancy name for “leader?) and MP for Banff and Buchan. The article was based on the lecture he had given that year to the Eighth John Hewitt Summer School held in Co. Antrim.

Several thought-provoking points are touched upon in it: the sectarian card being played in the recent Monklands East by-election; the fact that the SNP had been in “some ways too secular minded and unthinking about deep religious and community loyalty” (as opposed to Scottish Labour which had managed the impressive trick of “defending” West Coast and Glasgow Catholics, whilst simultaneously containing members of the Orange Order) and the role of the EU in providing the framework for prosperous, independent smaller nations- nations like, theoretically, Scotland and, in reality, the Republic…

So, yes, obviously parts of it seem a bit dated now (!) but those who read, and pondered on his statement post-Christmas ( the one about the N.Irish being the Scottish peoples’ “blood and bone”), however will be most interested in how he sets up and describes the relationship between the populations of Ulster (including parts of Donegal) and Scotland:

That relationship is founded on history. In pre-Christian times, the populations were interchangeable and Scottish and Northern Irish roots lie in the same place. In more recent history, the plantation of Northern Ireland and the Industrial Revolution both renewed an interchange and strengthened the common cultural roots. So distinctive are they that Scots/Irish is a term well recognised in America - a term that perhaps sums up the people of Northern Ireland as well as any other. And the people know it. Samuel Thomson, an eighteenth century Northern Irish poet, put it this way:

I love my native land no doubt
Attached to her through thick and thin
Yet though I'm Irish all without
I'm every item Scotch within.

Maybe people in Scotland should return the compliment and call ourselves Irish/Scots!

So recognisable is the Scottish influence in Northern Ireland that Billy Kay, an expert on the Scots language and culture, has written that:

The only major recognisable Scottish cultural community outside Scotland is the one in Ulster. It runs in a huge arch from the Ards peninsula...up through Antrim and North Derry to taper out in the Laggan Region of Donegal. In religion, music, literary tradition and especially language it is thoroughly Lowland and Scots speaking.

Even in geography and topography, there is a sense of continuity from the long road from Dumfries to Stranraer, through 'bonnie Galloway' down to the car ferry at Stranraer, and the drive away from Belfast in almost any direction.

That sense of continuity can be felt by any Scot arriving to live in Northern Ireland or any one from there going to live in Scotland. The two peoples use the same words, laugh at the same jokes, often sing the same songs, send their young people to study in each other's colleges and universities and even swap their priests and ministers - and occasionally their football players!

Scotland and Northern Ireland are perhaps examples of how the same people grow different habots on the surface after a period of separation, but who are deep down very similar.

As I said in the previous post on the topic, merely pointing out why that closeness exists between the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland is not in itself ethno-nationalism; saying that you help people because of that closeness is admitedly more tricky but in the case in question, I think it was more Salmond employing his typical populist bombast rather than seriously saying people from NI would get preferential treatment only because of those ethnic and cultural ties.

Finally, Salmond, like the SNP generally (and unlike their nationalist partners, Plaid Cymru which contains more than its fair share of Irish “Unity” devotees and downright SF groupies) takes a publicly agnostic stance on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland- he's happy to leave it up to the people of that particular part of the UK to decide their destiny. Whether that stance (which also runs contrary to the one held by many in the old “Irish” Labour Establishment in Scotland) is based on pragmatism given those sectarian faultlines mentioned earlier, or whether it is one based on conviction is a moot point. As an N.Irish Unionist, however, the motivation is unimportant; that policy of “permitting” us self-determination is surely all we can reasonably ask for.

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