In the Scottish Nationalists' office yesterday the argument was - though not yet finding its way on to the SNP's fax machine and out into the public domain - 'It would be unfortunate if violence achieved a referendum in Northern Ireland, but democracy in Scotland has not.'
Through the last general election John Major and his Scottish Office ministers insisted that the Union (the 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England) was not up for grabs. It was a brave policy seen against the growing demands, even among some of his own party, for some half-way house assembly to fend off democratic frustrations.
The day after the general election, Ian Lang, the Scottish Secretary, announced that Scotland had voted overwhelmingly for the Union. His arithmetic was simple: he added up the votes of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats. Three-quarters of Scotland, it was claimed, said Yes to the Union. There was no need, as Mr Major subsequently said in his visits North, for any other democratic test. A referendum for Scotland with choices between the status quo, a devolved assembly, or outright independence, would not happen under a Conservative government. The Union was sacrosanct. The Ulster declaration will not allow Mr Major to say this with confidence, and without fear of ridicule, in any future visit to Edinburgh.
Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, is now a territory that the British government says it has 'no selfish strategic or economic interest in'. The Government recognises that the people of Northern Ireland have a right of self-determination; and this 'without impediment'. The right to 'pursue, democratically, national and political aspirations' is now enshrined in a diplomatic document. It is as if Mr Major and Mr Reynolds have been poring over the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. According to the American president: 'A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, its law.'
The Scots, who have remained loyal to the ballot box despite being ruled over by a Conservative minority since 1979, do not usually need President Lincoln to remind themselves of the aspirations of nationhood. They have always had the chance to vote for independence: elect 37 nationalist MPs and Westminster will be history. The answer has been rejection of the SNP; it won only three seats at the general election. But a majority vote in favour of an assembly, allowing the Scots more control over their own affairs, has been ignored.
House of Commons diplomacy probably prevented Margaret Ewing, the SNP Member for Moray, from making too much noise on the opposition benches immediately after the precise wording of the Anglo-Irish declaration was made public. However, she reminded the House, on behalf of the constitutional nationalist parties (the SNP and their Welsh counterparts), of the importance they attached to achieving 'our aims through the ballot box, through reasoned arguments and through democratically expressed views of the people of the constituent parts of the UK'.
Mrs Ewing mentioned referendum and general election. Those less restrained in the nationalist movement in Scotland will point to the bullets and bombs of the IRA as bringing about the Ulster declaration. Yes, the same terrorist techniques have been flirted with, and thankfully, miserably failed, in Scotland. But if, down the road, a referendum is held in Northern Ireland, the Scots will demand their right to a similar democratic exercise. If this is denied, they will swiftly point to the example of what has been 'won' on the barricaded streets of Belfast and Derry.
The Anglo-Irish declaration has changed the definition of 'the Union' used until now by Mr Major. The meaning of neo-unionism is now up for grabs.
Bruce Black, secretary of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the multi-party pressure group formed to campaign for a Scottish assembly, knows that although the convention remains barely alive, indeed is on a political life-support machine, the joint declaration could pull it out of intensive care.
He said: 'It all depends on your interpretation of what the people's democratic wish is. The Irish and Scottish issues are not directly comparable. But this Government has always insisted that the traditions of the UK mean that devolved powers are somehow not relevant. If that changes . . . then the events in Northern Ireland will have far- reaching implications for the other parts of the United Kingdom.'Reuse content