Northern Ireland

Could Irish history offer answers in the Scottish Independence debate?

Man in kilt walking to polling place
Image caption The referendum will take place in 2014

People in Scotland have two years to make up their minds over the arguments for and against independence.

As they consider that question, are there any lessons to be learned from Irish history?

In a BBC Radio Ulster documentary,"The Break Up", we examine the parallels between the foundation of the new Irish state and the difficulties faced by an independent Scotland.

We also investigate how Scottish independence could impact on Northern Ireland.

Belfast-born academic Alvin Jackson, a professor at Edinburgh University, says that if the referendum goes Alex Salmond's way in 2014, the SNP leader will be faced with "the same kind of state building challenge that the architects of independent Ireland had."

It is an assessment that Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, of University College Dublin, agrees with.

The historian and author says there are similarities with today's debate and the dilemmas and questions faced by Eamon de Valera in the 1930s.

In 1932, under de Valera's leadership, Fianna Fail was elected to power and he was to remain Ireland's prime minister for 16 years. During that time, he removed many of the trappings of British rule.

Whilst the struggle for independence in Ireland was very different from the Scottish experience, Diarmaid Ferriter believes there are similarities.

"The parallels are interesting in terms of the dilemma that the breakaway creates - and the opportunities, as some would see it, from a nationalist point of view - that it creates in terms of establishing a separate identity and maximising sovereignty - but also the difficulties that it can create in terms of defence and in economics," he said.

With the referendum not taking place until 2014 - the independence debate has the potential to be the longest and the perhaps the most divisive political campaign in the history of Scotland.

Politicians at Stormont are watching events in Edinburgh carefully. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said local parties should stay out of the debate.

Image caption David Cameron opposes the campaign for Scottish independence

The DUP's Peter Robinson has taken a different approach. The First Minister has talked about the emotional bonds that link Scotland and Northern Ireland and has said he would campaign against independence.

'End of the Union'

Historian and RTE broadcaster John Bowman says an independent Scotland dramatically changes the political map of these islands. He said even the language we use may have to change if Scottish voters back independence.

"Of course, it won't be Britain any more because Great Britain is from the Act of Union," he said.

He understands why unionists in Northern Ireland are worried.

"I think the knock on effect for Northern Ireland could be huge and It will effectively be the end of the Union," he said.

In Dublin, there is nervousness about how Scottish independence could change Anglo-Irish relations. Former diplomat Eamon Delaney, who worked in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, said a break-up of the Union could undermine the deal agreed on Good Friday 1998.

"That agreement, bedded down, will now be kind of rocked or challenged by the desire of Scotland to break away from the mothership and to create its own independence and it will call into question the durability of the Irish relationship with the UK," Mr Delaney warned.

If Scotland breaks away from the Union, Alex Salmond will face many of the dilemmas once faced by Eamon De Valera.

However, if independence arrives, unlike the Irish experience it will have been achieved by purely constitutional means.

Image caption If Scotland leaves the UK it would 'mark the biggest change to the political geography of these islands in 90 years'

If Scotland leaves the UK it marks the biggest change to the political geography of these islands in 90 years.

New alliances will be formed and there will be a new order to the politics of the Union.

Scots have much to consider in the next two years - perhaps a little Irish history might provide some answers.

The Break Up: Sunday 11 March 13:30 GMT: repeated Thursday 19:30 GMT BBC Radio Ulster

Follow Stephen Walker on Twitter @StepWalkTV

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