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by Chris Marshall
14 September 2022
Fintan O'Toole: The parallels between Ireland and Scotland are inevitable, but you've got to be careful of them

Fintan O'Toole giving the 2019 Christopher Hitchens Lecture at the Hay Festival | Credit: Alamy

Fintan O'Toole: The parallels between Ireland and Scotland are inevitable, but you've got to be careful of them

At the end of his recent book on the modern history of Ireland, Fintan O’Toole admits his own life is “too boring” for a memoir. Instead, he tells the story of a country in a constant state of flux and ferment, taking the year of his birth (1958) as the starting point.

Back in those early days, he writes of there being two ideas of Ireland – one “bounded, protected and shielded” from the outside world, the other “shifting [and] physically on the move to that outside world”. 

“In the space between these two Irelands, there was a haunted emptiness, a sense of something so unreal that it might disappear completely.”

We Don’t Know Ourselves is, as you’d expect from one of Ireland’s leading journalists and intellectuals, a lyrical history of a country which has gone from among the poorest in Europe to being a modern economy at the heart of the EU. Viewed from across the sea in post-Brexit Britain, Ireland is the epitome of modern statehood that many Scottish nationalists aspire to.

Yet as tends to be the way with modern politics, things are more complicated than that. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the accompanying Northern Ireland Protocol has raised the prospect of a border poll, something which would make a second Scottish independence referendum look straightforward by comparison.

“When the Belfast Agreement was written, there was an assumption that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would be a very serious person,” O’Toole says when we chat in the days leading up to his appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. 

“This person has the power to call or not call a border poll. There was an assumption in that far-off time of 1998 that, of course, this would be a serious person who would take this job and this decision with the utmost gravity, but now we’re facing a situation where you really cannot say that any British minister will behave with seriousness or even lawfulness. That’s what is so terrifying about the border poll in Northern Ireland.”

O’Toole has been a keen observer both of Brexit and its ongoing implications for the island of Ireland. But if Scotland was largely absent from the recent Tory leadership contest, Northern Ireland barely got a mention.

I ask him whether he’s depressed about that apparent lack of interest. O’Toole says he was shocked when in 2016 during the final pre-Brexit debate, Boris Johnson was asked about Northern Ireland and answered by talking about the Balkans.

“I swear, people think I’m joking about this, but he talked about the Balkans,” O’Toole says.

“He wasn’t going to say the words ‘Northern Ireland’, he wasn’t going to address it. And we know from some of the memoirs written by Leave people and articles written by them subsequently that this was deliberate. There was a decision taken in the Leave campaign that Northern Ireland was just not going to feature. In a way, they were right because what Northern Ireland means is complication.” 

Unsurprisingly, O’Toole is not a fan of Johnson or his successor Liz Truss, who he describes as “slightly more subtly mendacious” than her predecessor. 

“Her record of having any sense of principle or any real idea of truthfulness is pretty miserable,” O’Toole says. “So, we don’t really know what she means by a lot of what she says, but she is the architect of the Northern Ireland protocol bill – at least she’s a sponsor of it – and what that bill does is give ministers the power to set aside any part of the withdrawal agreement. 

“What that introduces is a sort of radical uncertainty… basically ministerial whim is being introduced on grounds which you can override an international treaty. To do this in the context of Northern Ireland is just appallingly reckless. If there’s one place that doesn’t need more uncertainty, it’s Northern Ireland.”

Earlier this year, Michelle O’Neill, the vice president of Sinn Féin, put herself in position to become the first-ever nationalist first minister of Northern Ireland after her party won the most seats in the country’s Assembly.

A few weeks later, O’Neill met First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House in Edinburgh, a meeting which led to some criticism of the SNP leader from her political opponents.

O’Toole describes Sturgeon as “incredibly impressive,” but warns against aligning Scottish nationalism with that of its Celtic cousin. 

In some ways, I don’t like nationalism; it doesn’t fundamentally appeal to me intellectually, but as an Irish person, if Ireland was still part of the UK, even if it were thriving or doing pretty well, I would vote to leave

“I would be very careful if I was [Nicola Sturgeon],” he says. “It’s not for Irish people to interfere in Scotland’s very important debate, but one of the things that Scotland has is some very obvious historical advantages over Ireland.

“Obviously they share a lot, both countries were integrated into the UK with various degrees of happiness… but looking at it from the Irish perspective, one can only be somewhat jealous of Scotland. Whether you think [Scottish] independence is a good thing or not, I don’t think anybody thinks it’s going to be accompanied by violence or by large-scale intercommunal violence or violence between Scotland and England.”

He adds: “If I were Nicola Sturgeon, I would be quite careful about thinking that the nationalism that the SNP might want to express – I know it’s very conscious of talking about it being civic rather than ethnic – is the same as the Sinn Féin’s idea of nationalism, which obviously has very deep roots in violence and very deep roots in a sort of intercommunal tribalism.

“I think Sinn Féin would say, with some justice, that it’s trying to overcome that legacy, but it’s very much still struggling with it. If I was a Scottish nationalist, I would keep away from it.”

But while Irish nationalism is not a blueprint for Scotland to follow, does the success of the Republic’s economy – the once feted Celtic Tiger – provide a useful model for what an independent future might look like?

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill meets Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House earlier this year | Credit: Alamy

Publishing its white paper earlier this year on how Scotland’s economy and society might prosper in the event of a Yes vote, the Scottish Government chose Ireland as one of a number of small European countries which “frequently outperform” the UK, with “virtuous cycles by which economic dynamism and social solidarity become mutually reinforcing”.

So, is Ireland, a country with a population of just over five million, a good act to follow?

“The answer depends on when you freeze the Irish process of development,” O’Toole says. “I’m 64, I would say without much prospect of contradiction that for most of my life, if you were looking at it completely coldly and objectively – which I know nationalism does not – if you said here’s one part of the United Kingdom that left, and another part that stayed, which is better off?

“For all Scotland’s problems, there’s reasons why Irish people would’ve emigrated to Scotland rather than the other way around – the NHS, the educational opportunities, the employment, the chances to better yourself and have a better life for your kids. I think that was pretty unarguable both on the macroeconomic level, but also – more importantly to me – on the level of human development and opportunity.

“You could have taken Ireland for quite a long time as a negative example and said, ‘oh well, independence might have been all very well, but look at the state Ireland is in’. Really up to the late 1980s, you could have made that argument without much rational contradiction.”

O’Toole, a frequent traveler to Scotland, says he noticed a change in the way his homeland was perceived from the late 1990s onwards – the idea that Ireland was a positive example for Scottish nationalism to follow. 

“Ireland was the flavour of the month around the world, we had the peace process, we had Riverdance and the Celtic Tiger and all that. But equally in 2008/2009, you could have said a lot of that was illusory – Ireland’s path to development had actually turned out to be extremely problematic.

“I know Scotland had bad banks and suffered very significantly and maybe still does from the aftereffects of the banking disaster of 2008, but Ireland was much worse. Ireland was probably the country in western Europe which suffered most severely. And now Ireland is in recovery mode.

“I think the parallels are inevitable… but you’ve got to be careful of them. I don’t think it would be possible or necessarily wise for Scotland to completely seek to reproduce what Ireland did.”

O’Toole explores the fallout from the banking crisis in a chapter of his book entitled Jesus Fucking Hell and God. Given Ireland’s recent travails, and the unfolding Brexit omnishambles, he says Sturgeon and the SNP should be up front about the economic implications of separation – an honesty which was noticeably absent from the Leave side in the 2016 vote to leave the EU.

“Oddly enough, as a Scottish person I think I would be more persuaded if I was told what the cost would be, that we’re going to have ten difficult years, rather than being told that once we vote for independence everything will be great,” he says.

I think the reason most Irish people are very sceptical about Brexit is not because we’re smarter than anyone in Britain, but because we’ve had the very dark experience of where badly handled nationalistic zeal can lead you

I ask him whether he’d vote for Scottish independence if he could, and while he’s initially uncomfortable with offering an opinion, his conclusion is clear. 

“I’m very reluctant to answer that because it’s really not for people like me to be interfering,” he says. “I almost certainly would if I was asked the question. It’s a very good argument as to whether you should ask the question or whether you should ask it repeatedly. 

“In some ways, I don’t like nationalism, it doesn’t fundamentally appeal to me intellectually, but as an Irish person, if Ireland was still part of the UK, even if it were thriving or doing pretty well, I would vote to leave. I would vote for reasons that are, in a sense, emotional, irrational, psychological, to do with my sense of community, my sense of belonging.

“Even if someone said to me there was going to be an economic hit, that the standard of living would be less, even though I have written so much about the failure of the Irish state that was founded in 1922, I still would have voted for it. 

“Even knowing how miserable it was going to be, I still can’t imagine that in 1922 that I wouldn’t have wanted it. That’s a very poor argument because it’s not rational, it’s not something I can pin down and say why it’s worth doing. If somebody offers it to you, you’re almost obliged to accept it. It’s a challenge that’s being created for you that you have to go for.”

O’Toole says he has a notion of there being a “fixed amount of nationalistic angst” on the two islands, and that when it’s dissipated in Ireland, it has increased in Britain.

“I think the reason most Irish people are very sceptical about Brexit is not because we’re smarter than anyone in Britain, but because we’ve had the very dark experience of where badly handled nationalistic zeal can lead you,” he says.

“It’s not that nationalism itself is a problem for most Irish people… but we had a very bitter experience of what an unthinking form of nationalism which defines the Us as not Them – a sort of negative nationalism where you try to define your identity but what you’re not. We’ve done all that – it’s not a particularly pleasant experience and it takes you a long time to get out of it.”

O'Toole says Liz Truss is “slightly more subtly mendacious” than her predecessor | Credit: Alamy

Given the difficulties of Brexit, the economic downturn, the cost-of-living crisis, war in Europe, the growing threat of climate change, it can be hard to remain upbeat about the future. I ask O’Toole if he retains the optimism that runs through much of his recent book.

“I have a sort of battered optimism,” he says. “You’re an idiot if you think everything is going well. But I still have a feeling that a lot of the pain we’re experiencing at the moment, they are growing pains, they’re pains of adjustment to new realities and those realities include the climate crisis. We have to re-order our societies, our economies. 

“Anybody with a brain is deeply, deeply anxious about the return of war, the rise of the far right, the unravelling of democracy even in places where it seemed pretty secure and, of course, the climate emergency.

“I’m not blasé that those reactionary forces can win, absolutely they can. But we know human possibility. As horrific as the pandemic was, it was a real lesson about the moment we’re at in history. It was a real reminder of our individual and collective capacities, and I still have faith in those.”  

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