If Scotland Votes "Yes," Is Northern Ireland Next?
The polls are open in Scotland, where voters have a very simple "Yes" or "No" choice on the very complicated question of whether or not they want to leave the United Kingdom, of which they have been a part of for more than 300 years, and become an independent country.
With current polling showing a razor-thin margin in favor the "No" vote, there is speculation on what the referendum will mean for Northern Ireland, comprised of the six northern-most counties of Ireland, which are also part of the United Kingdom. The three decades of constant violence between Catholics and Protestants (and the British Protestant-dominated government) known as "The Troubles" ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, but it has always been a fragile and shaky peace, one which has shown recent signs of fraying.
Unlike in Scotland, where the independence movement is alternatively driven by opposition to the U.K.'s nuclear weapons, support for an increased socialist welfare state, as well as nationalist pride, Northern Ireland's divisions are so deeply ingrained that the upheaval caused by Scottish independence could fast track a similar referendum there.
Recent polls have shown that the ever-increasing Catholic population of Northern Ireland would rather remain part of the U.K. than join the other 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland. To this, Michael Brendan Dougherty of TheWeek.com asks:
But would they remain committed if Ireland's economy rebounds and the U.K.'s deteriorates? What if the broader project of the United Kingdom decomposes in the face of Scottish nationalism? And why would pro-union Catholics vote to stay in the union, when unionism will be championed by parties that attract zero Catholic votes?
Another question may be more disquieting to loyalists: Does England even want Belfast? The same polls showed that a smaller percentage of English people are committed to keeping Northern Ireland. For many years, it has received the most public money per capita in the union, while generating the least. And many English find Northern Irish politics exasperating, its style of unionism oafish.
Even Thatcher seems to have contemplated cutting Northern Ireland off during the Hunger Strikes. Similar threats were made by Westminster in order to broker the 1998 Good Friday agreement. It's hard to imagine David Cameron or his successor giving emotional speeches about the role of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, as Cameron and his associates have done for Scotland.
Northern Ireland's status in the union has been scrambled for some time. At the 2012 Olympic Games, Northern Irish athletes were not automatically made part of team "Great Britain," since Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain, only the United Kingdom. Seven of its athletes competed for Great Britain, while 13 represented the Republic of Ireland.
A major element of the Good Friday Agreement was the required disarmament of paramilitary groups like the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), but this has never been fully implemented.
In November 2013, following the shooting of a teenager, the Police Federation of Northern Ireland warned that the UVF were "engaged in murder, attempted murder of civilians, attempted murder of police officers. They have been engaged in orchestrating violence on our streets, and it's very clear to me that they are engaged in an array of mafia-style activities." The UVF has also been accused of racist mob attacks on non-Irish ethnic minorites in Belfast.
On the other side, fringe elements of the IRA have sent letter bombs to government buildings, and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has warned that the peace agreement is in danger of collapse over disagreements pertaining to welfare reform (which could be seen as a sign of how far we've come since The Troubles).
Adams himself was recently forced to revisit one of the darkest periods of The Troubles, when he was arrested in May and held for questioning for four days over new evidence tying him to the murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 accused by the IRA of collaborating with the British army. Though Adams was released without being charged, and vigorously denies any involvement with the murder, his arrest demonstrated how old wounds are never too far from the surface in Northern Ireland.
None of this means that widespread sectarian violence will return to Northern Ireland, nor does it mean that a referendum is inevitable. But if the choice to leave the U.K. does present itself, it has the potential to be far more divisive and painful than Scotland's.