Journal, 14th September: The Curious Case of the Invisible Ireland
In which I try and start writing opinions on the internet again, in case there’s a shortage.
A couple of days ago, a Better Together poster popped up in my Twitter feed. It seemed like a pretty spectacular own-goal on first glance: “Vote No to Scotch Independence,” showing the entirety of Ireland and Britain coloured in yer stylised Union Flag graphic. Yes, all of Ireland.
It was a fake, of course, and quite a funny one. What’s odd is that it didn’t seem so implausible, on first viewing. Ireland and its history is curiously absent from the debate surrounding Scottish independence. I’ve yet to see an article looking at the Irish communities in the UK as a why of examining the future Scottish experience in England if they secede, for example. Ireland is the only country ever to leave the United Kingdom, so you’d think its spectre would be all over the discussion.
This week I overheard some BBC News24 mood-report in which some poor journalist who’d been sent up to Edinburgh that day, blinking like a startled pony that had just made an unexpected quantum leap to the moon, was trying desperately to get vox-pops from the funny-accented locals without sounding overtly puzzled and/or patronising. Amid the usual blather I head someone refer, offhand-like, to the possibility of Scotland’s departure as “unprecedented for Britain.” Granted, this may have been a punter-on-the-street rather than the actual journalist (I’m not sure, I was making tea) and besides, this was a journalist-cliché use of “unprecedented,” deployed in much the same way that Jamie Redknapp says “He has literally cut him in two there.” It’s still an odd thing to hear when you’ve spent, oh, quarter of a century living in the one great big obvious precedent. It’s almost as though the last one hundred years of Irish history never happened, which is why the fake Better Together poster seemed pretty believable
Purely from a data-gathering point of view, this is perverse; it means many of these conversations are blinkered by definition. How can you have a serious discussion about the thorny issue of currency, without at least asking how the Irish dealt with the matter (they continued to use Sterling for seven years and then launched their own pound, initially pegged to Sterling, and later floated when the Sterling Area broke up)? How can anyone produce a speculative “how would an independent Scotland work?” article without referring to the relationship between the UK and Ireland? And, if you want to discredit an independence movement, the fact that Ireland emerged from independence to be one of the poorest countries in Western Europe for seventy years or so would seem a stick just waiting to be used for some beating.
Maybe the answer lies in the mutually assured destruction that Ireland represents; it could be that the yes side don’t want to deal with the spectre of Northern Ireland, decades of terrorism, and the – shall we say – thorny relationship that some quarters of the Unionist contingent have with the Irish Republic. Presumably, the no side would rather not remind people that it’s possible to become an independent country without carelessly letting your crazy, out-of-control secessionist fire burn down the house.
And yet… the absence of Ireland from the UK’s political discussion is not a new phenomenon. The UK’s referendum on the Alternative Vote system was awash with derogatory references to Italy as an example of PR’s inherent instability, and approving ones to Germany’s stability as a response. Ireland uses AV in its Presidential elections and its little brother STV in the General Elections, and yet it was hardly referred to at all. Similarly, when the UK indulges in its periodic “should we still have a monarchy” discussions – you know, the ones that usually end up with paeans to how great the Queen is at shaking hands and saying “what do you do?” – the go-to argument for royalists is do-we-want-a-US-style-presidency. Yet the next-door neighbours have a president who performs more or less exactly the same role as the British monarch, and this hardly features.
It’s tempting to launch into an indictment of Britain’s unconscious superiority of empire, but that’s not really fair. The Canadians have the same sense of invisibility as far as the U.S.A. is concerned; it seems to be natural when a large country exists beside a smaller one.
Let’s be clear, from an Irish point of view it’s no more than irritating and it’s often pretty funny – it’s oddly amusing to watch the Brits have a collective meltdown when confronted with a government coalition, completely unaware that across de water they’re pretty standard. However, it’s still an insult of sorts: an unconscious snub, a blithe assumption that a Backward Little Country Like Ireland can’t possibly teach Britain anything. In short, that it’s not a serious place.
Of course, the UK is a different country. The apparently-wilful ignorance might be odd but, ultimately, there’s no reason that people from the UK should know about the Irish voting system or its history of secession – just like you wouldn’t expect an Irish twenty year-old to know about Magna Carta, or the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or to be able to name Princess Eugenie’s parents.
If Ireland were part of the UK, it would be a different story. For the entire political establishment (and a good chunk of its people) to be completely unaware of these things would be contemptuous. It would be an appalling dereliction of government. It would be, in short, intolerable… and in case that’s not entirely clear, my use of “would be” is entirely rhetorical. We don’t have to imagine what it would be like, we can already see. That’s not a partnership of equals, which is what we keep being told the UK is; that’s one country so dominant over the other that it doesn’t feel the need to know the first bloody thing about it.
Ultimately, while I think Scottish independence is broadly a good thing for various proper reasons, I’m mainly in favour because it would be funny to see the look on David Cameron’s face. In other words, I’m not that bothered… but what I do notice is how alienating a lot of the pro-union rhetoric must be, and how oblivious they are of the fact. Scotland being “marginalised” or “ignored” is a running theme of the independence debate (and many discussions before), and although I’m not Scottish they do strike a tiny, familiar little chord. Look at it in that way, and there’s a lot of British voices that resemble that Mulholland Drive guy spitting out his coffee, entirely unaware that it’s bad manners, entirely uninterested in learning why. That’s not a rigorous view, I know. But I’m not surprised that half of Scotland’s pissed off about the whole arrangement, that’s all.