If Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, is Northern Ireland next

Unionists in Northern Ireland are worried that a 'yes' result in next month's independence referendum in Scotland could eventually lead to a reunification of Ireland.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
The national flag of Scotland (c) flies amongst other flags, including Ulster Banners on either side, in a street in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, last month.

The St. Andrew's cross of Scotland has long had a place in Northern Ireland, particularly among its pro-Britain unionist population. Many of them are descended from the tens of thousands of Scottish Presbyterians who moved to Ireland in the 17th century under British colonial rule.

But with Scotland set next month to vote on independence from Britain, the meaning of the blue-and-white saltire has been inverted. Some here believe that a "yes" vote could inspire a fresh political drive for Irish unification. That prospect is feared by unionists who want the status quo in Northern Island. 

After 30 years of vicious sectarian conflict, Northern Ireland has reached a stable but contentious peace. The government at Stormont, in Belfast, is administered by an awkward power-sharing arrangement between nationalists, who seek to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the south, and unionists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. For the latter, the Scottish referendum hits worryingly close to home.

"The ramifications would be much greater for unionism if there was a 'yes' vote," says Peter Shirlow, a professor at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast.

"For republicans, if the vote is close – or a 'yes' vote – it will give them the energy to say, even in Scotland where you didn’t have the conflict, people are unsure about the union, unsure about Britishness."

Danny Morrison, director of publicity for the nationalist party Sinn Fein during the 1981 Hunger Strikes, says that Scottish independence would "have a psychological effect on the unionist people." For unionists, Mr. Morrison explains, Scotland's independence would fundamentally change the nature of the union to which they pledge allegiance, thereby directly challenging their identity.

But he notes, Scotland's independence would be unlikely to bring Irish unity any closer, he says. For nationalists, "the union between the north [of Ireland] and Britain" is the only relationship of importance, he points out – Scotland's place in Britain is not a factor. 

Unionists are not as sure. Publicly, unionist politicians in Northern Ireland have warned of the dangers posed by a "yes" vote. Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott even warned that the Scottish National Party, which is driving the "yes" campaign, is "a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the [Irish Republican Army]."

But privately, many unionists suggest the impact of a "yes" in Scotland would not spell the end of their place in the union. Paradoxically, some say it might even strengthen the unionist position.

A stronger union?

"A lot of [moderate] nationalists are going to say we don’t want [unification with the Republic], that’s only going to cause far more problems than it’s worth," says Alex Kane, a leading unionist commentator in Belfast. "Part of me thinks that the Scots voting for independence might do unionism no harm here, it might actually strengthen [desire to remain in Britain] among 'small-n’ [moderate] nationalists."

Most Northern Irish unionists are confident that their brethren across the Irish Channel will reject independence, as most polls suggest they will. 

But even a Scottish "no" next month could impact Northern Ireland negatively. Such a vote would likely be followed by the delegation of new powers from London to the devolved parliaments. In Northern Ireland, the power-sharing government already struggles to reach agreement on mundane political issues. New powers, while cementing Scotland’s place in the union, could broaden the opportunity for instability in Northern Ireland.

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