Freed from the straitjacket of Irish nationalism

As the rival political parties in Dublin haggled for power in the Dail, the Irish President, Mary Robinson, took off to another Celtic land to project a more edifying image of the New Ireland which she has so attractively and effectively symbolised during her seven years as head of state.

The stateless nation of Scotland might seem a strange place for her to spend three of her final days in office, but then Mrs Robinson's marvellous achievement on the diplomatic stage has been to escape from the straightjacket of nation stateism and to inspire her compatriots to think of Ireland as an entity which stretches far beyond Erin's Isle.

As the political theorist Benedict Anderson has convincingly argued, nations are "imagined communities". The Irish community, which Mrs Robinson has imaginatively represented since 1990, is not simply the 3.5 million souls living in the Republic, but the 80 million or so members of the global Irish diaspora, be they in Boston, Kilburn or Glasgow, where she will round off her Scottish sortie tomorrow.

Mrs Robinson arrived in Scotland on Sunday, presiding at a special service to commemorate the 1400th anniversary of the Death of St Columba, who sailed to the island of Iona to establish a monastic base and lay down the roots of the Christian church in Scotland. She made her own pilgrimage in a helicopter rather than a coracle, telling fellow worshippers that St Columba "reminds us of how old the links are between Ireland and Scotland".

But the focus of her visit is on the future as much as the ancient past. Yesterday, opening an exhibition on St Columba in Stornoway on the equally windswept western isle of Lewis, she launched an initiative to promote closer links between the people of Ireland and Scotland based on their shared Gaelic heritage. Her announcement was welcomed by the Scottish Office minister, Brian Wilson, who has long championed the Gaelic language cause in the pages of the West Highland Free Press.

But Mr Wilson would like to keep the Celtic connections limited to the cultural and sporting spheres. Having been one of the last in the Scottish Labour Party to reconcile himself to the party's policy of devolution - largely for career advancement reasons - he would detest it if Scotland ever broke away from the British state as Southern Ireland did 75 years ago.

Indeed, when he wrote a column in Glasgow's Herald newspaper, Mr Wilson used to warn his fellow Scots that if they went down the separatist road, their country would end up an economic basket case like Eire. He has ceased to peddle that argument in recent times as Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" economy has roared ahead of the rest of Europe.

Ireland is now cited as an inspiring example of Independence in Europe by the Scottish National Party, whose leader Alex Salmond never misses an opportunity these days to rhapsodise about the Republic. This represents a major shift for the SNP, which used to point to the prosperous and socially cohesive Scandinavian countries as model mini-states which Scotland should seek to emulate.

Mr Salmond wrote recently in the Irish Times: "In Scotland we can only envy Ireland's access to Europe's top table, just as we can only envy Ireland's international visibility in tourism and investment - not to mention the self-respect which go with it."

Ireland's constitutional status calmly contributes to its current national vibrancy. Mrs Robinson acknowledged this on Sunday, telling the Iona worshippers: "In Ireland at the moment it is a very creative time, partly I think because we feel enhanced and reinforced by our membership of the EU."

But Mrs Robinson would never publicly urge the Scots to opt for independence in Europe like the Irish. Don't ever expect her to declare in DeGaullian fashion: "Vive l'Ecosse libre!" not just because she doesn't want to provoke a diplomatic storm between Dublin and London, but because the President of Ireland is, essentially, a post-nationalist.

That enviable outlook is simply not available to stateless Scotland, which slept through the springtime of nations to share in the fruits of the British Empire and is struggling to find a post-imperial role.

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