Henry Hill: Thoughts from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland
Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
Fifteen years after what the BBC dubbed “Northern Ireland’s single worst terrorist atrocity”, a pair of Republicans were found liable in a civil court for the 1998 Omagh bombing.
Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly, who declined to appear at the trial, are now being pursued for damages by relatives of the bomb’s victims, and along with two other former members of the Real IRA have been ordered to pay damages of £1.6 million.
This, coming in the same week that the parents of a young boy murdered by another Republican bomb addressed the Northern Ireland Assembly, provides a jarring reminder for a mainland reader about how strong the legacy of the Troubles still is in the province.
For me, with an Irish family but too young to remember the Troubles, it’s also a weird reminder of just how long they lasted. Grainy footage of soldiers and smoke from the 1970s, or Margaret Thatcher defiantly addressing the party conference after evading the Brighton Bomb, is history for me, and I was only vaguely aware of John Major’s premiership. But 1998, coming as it does during the reign of Tony Blair, seems uncomfortably proximate, and for someone more familiar with the daily dysfunctions of modern Ulster politics, this conviction serves as a timely reminders of how far Northern Ireland has come.
It’s been have-your-cake-and-eat-it week at the Silk Commission on Welsh devolution, as they received the official submission of the Church in Wales. The Church’s position, like so many other bilateral devolution proposals, takes two strands, which are as follows.
But all of this must have absolutely no downside for Wales, which informs the second strand of the Church’s position, which is summed up in a single, hard to believe sentence: “Devolution should not, under any circumstances, lead to more fragmentation of the United Kingdom or insularity within it.” This strikes me as rather baffling, since devolution is the process of fragmenting the UK and creating insular political cultures within devolved areas (or ‘separate political lives’, as the Liberal Democrats put it).
The Church argue that devolution should not adversely impact “Welsh influence on the UK”, apparently without realising that influence is a two-way street and that Welsh influence on the UK is only just to the extent that there is matching UK influence on Wales. The more that UK-level decision making is side-lined in Wales, the more Wales can expect to be side-lined in UK decision making. And the Church clearly has a very narrow view of what decisions ought to be taken by the British as the British, listing only “defence (where there is concern over the use of Wales for basing nuclear submarines and testing drones), foreign policy, energy generation (given the critical position in Wales of nuclear power, wind power, the Severn Barrage) and the block grant”, which leaves British union sounding like not much more of an actual country than the European one.
Fundamentally, they demonstrate the same flaw of other bilateral devoluntionaries in that they simply take the view of what is best for their chosen polity (Wales) without a British perspective. For example, the Church maintain that even if the number of AMs goes up, and the amount of policy devolved to Cardiff increases, there must be no reduction in the number of Welsh MPs, despite such a reduction being at once efficient, just and logical. It might not be good for the Union – Plaid are always quick to mention this as the obvious corollary of increasing the size of the Assembly – but ducking difficult constitutional questions is what led to the West Lothian Question, and is a guarantee of future misery.
Speaking of those ‘separate political lives’, it is not just Wales that has been getting a taste of the Liberal Democrat’s federalism this week. Scotland is already familiar with it, since the party unveiled plans for ”Home Rule” last year, and leader Willie Rennie is the latest to try and cast a ‘No’ vote as simply being ‘Yes to more powers’– an outcome which Better Together expended a lot of energy getting a two-question referendum precisely to avoid.
But it took an fresh twist when politicians from the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland announced that they were looking at fomenting a new separatist vision all of their very own. The idea, outlined here in the Guardian, would be for the remote island groups to gain their own devolution settlements, perhaps even becoming Crown Dependencies or British Overseas Territories (although this would require leaving the Union).
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland has come up with the slogan “It’s wir oil” to front his claim that the islands should have a right to self-determination distinct from that of Scotland as a whole. This isn’t an entirely new idea. It certainly hasn’t gone unmentioned before that with “two thirds of the North Sea and west of Shetland reserves … in Shetland coastal waters”, the Northern Isles could make a pretty good fist of being a cold, rainy version of a Gulf oil sheikhdom.
Alternatively, northern self-determination could see them taking the loyal option and remaining in the UK. The islands do after all have a track record of opposition to nationalism, opposing the establishment of a Scottish Assembly in 1979, securing an opt-out clause from that referendum were the rest of Scotland to vote yes, and voting against being part of an independent Scotland in in a pre-1979 poll by a whopping nine-to-one margin.
The SNP, unsurprisingly, are no keener self-determination for constituent parts of their country than most Irish nationalists were a century before, and offer very similar justifications: Nicola Sturgeon angered Shetlanders by declaring the islands “not a nation”. However, they might not have to worry. According to a Shetland newspaper, there is no longer a “no equivalent of the SNP in Shetland, no cohesive and organised group which might be able to push people into positions of power on the council advocating that Shetland (and indeed Orkney) should go it alone as there was in the 1970s and 1980s” – a small but happy reminder, in the face of all this federalist defeatism, that separatist movements can be beaten.
In a long referendum battle, it is almost inevitable that we will see both sides advance seriously suspect arguments from time to time. But I’ve not yet come across one quite as bizarre as the notion that “an independent Scotland would allow us to drink less and smoke less” (hat-tip to British Unity). I don’t know whether Ms Koepplinger really thinks the psychic stress of the Union is driving Scots to alcohol and tobacco, or whether she means that a separate Scottish government will be able to pursue draconian anti-smoking and anti-drinking legislation undreamed off in distant, decadent London, but I don’t think the Yes Scotland advisory board comes off brilliantly in either interpretation.