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By Jason Michael

ON HOGMANAY 2014, as the year that saw Scotland split down the middle on the question of independence came to an end, Scottish Labour activist and journalist Aidan Kerr published a blog post describing what he saw as the “Ulsterisation of Scottish Politics.” Over a year later, writing in The Herald, columnist David Torrance capitalised on this term to describe what he saw in essence as an insular politics of conflict in which Scotland – like the occupied six counties before it – withdraws from British politics as it continues to polarise on the constitutional question. This was a clever manœuvre on the part of the unionist commentariat. At a stroke it brought the dark and awful shadow of Irish political violence down on the Scottish debate and, by associating Scottish independentistas with Irish “nationalists,” planted the idea that it was the campaign for independence which had introduced this threat to the peace of Scotland’s democracy.

Independence supporters and the Scottish National Party reacted, as was to be expected, with both dismay and disgust. What we had done in the Yes campaign bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Irish struggle either from 1916 or latterly from the 1960s in the north of Ireland. Yet, this was a deliberate attempt by the unionist media to create a relationship in the public’s mind between the independence movement here and what would inevitably be boiled down to the Irish Republican movement and the actions of the Provisional IRA. What Kerr and Torrance were playing at was a game of weaponised propaganda. It was intended to stop us from making certain connections between what had happened – and is still happening – in Ireland and what is happening in Scotland, and to some extent this ploy has worked.

Living in Ireland, as I do, this fear of association with the blood-soaked politics of Ireland meant that I had to tread carefully. It was apparent from social media, even during the referendum campaign, there was a level of discomfort among Yes campaigners with the fact I was in Dublin. Thus, when I began campaigning after the referendum I felt it important to hide my location. I tried to keep Irish politics and Ireland’s historical experiences out of Scottish politics. But, as is always the way online, my identity and whereabouts were exposed. Naturally, this was quickly leapt upon by unionist trolls; I was not in Scotland and therefore Scottish politics didn’t concern me, and, of course, I had to be connected to Irish Republicanism.

As it turns out I am an Irish Republican, but no more than I am a Scottish Republican. Still, I felt it important the connection of these two republicanisms be avoided. Somehow, I had failed to make the connection between Ireland’s experience and what leads me to be a republican here and what makes me a republicanism at home. These are, after all, not different things.

It was not until the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on the August 1971 British Army massacre at Ballymurphy in Belfast was aired that the penny dropped. In early August 1971 the British Army in the North was not fighting an armed struggle. There was no “war” at that time. Britain’s puppet government in “Northern Ireland” had lost control of a situation it had created; loyalist mobs and paramilitaries were in the midst of a sectarian anti-Catholic pogrom – burning out innocent Catholic families from their homes in towns and cities all over the six counties. The IRA, before the Provisional IRA had fully broken away from it, was acting as a community defence force protecting Catholic communities – and, as we saw at Ballymurphy, it wasn’t too effective at that. Operation Banner, the British Army operation in the North, was implemented initially to restore order the was seen by Catholics, in the beginning, as a protection.

Ballymurphy changed this, however. The British government wasn’t interested in sorting the mess in Northern Ireland. It was interested only in restoring the law and order of the loyalist status quo, the very sectarian and undemocratic political establishment against which the civil rights movement was mobilised. The attack on the Ballymurphy estate was an attack on the civil rights movement, and not the IRA. Again, the following year, the massacre in Derry – “Bloody Sunday” – was another murderous attack on the civil rights movement, and not the IRA. In fact, it was these events that created the more militant Provisional IRA. Yes, it had existed prior to this, but when the British government began murdering innocent people P-IRA recruitment vastly increased, giving the “Provos” the numbers to wage a war against Britain in Ireland and overseas.

Given the lies and the deliberate distortion of the narrative by the BBC and the rest of the British media throughout the Troubles; making the IRA, Sinn Féin (painted in the British press as the “political-wing” of the IRA), and the wider Irish Republican movement out to be the aggressors, it is understandable that the independence movement in Scotland would not want to be linked to this story. This is why the false narrative of Ulsterisation worked.

But, pretending it’s a valid description for a moment – which it is not, Ulsterisation in the north of Ireland was not caused by the Catholic population; nationalist or republican. Ulsterisation was, if anything, a mode of colonial administration and government foisted upon them. It was a social and political mechanism that meant Catholics were not adequately represented, were excluded from civic life and industrial employment, and were housed in only the worst housing areas. The entire apparatus of the state was used against them. They had no voice in the media, they were continually misrepresented, demonised, and criminalised, and forced to live in a state that was constitutionally over and against them and their human, social, and political rights.

The name for this is not “Ulsterisation.” It is “British rule.” In Ireland in 1690 and the period of the anti-Catholic penal code the Irish Catholic population was seen by the English and the later British state as a hostile population. Between 1690 and 1962 there were no fewer than fifteen rebellions in Ireland against British rule, all of which were rooted in Ireland’s unique sense of nationhood – with those willing to fight rallying around the symbols of Irish Catholic nationalism and Irish Republicanism. In spite of the use of the term “Catholic,” these were not “religious wars.” Catholicism, in the Irish political context, was a cultural signifier and a mark of national difference between Ireland and England. The response of British rule was always the same; repression and violence.

While Ireland and Scotland are not the same, and while the processes that have brought these two nations to where they are now are completely different, the active ingredient is the same – British rule. The British state’s dominations of Ireland and Scotland are fundamentally the same, and so we cannot see the purposes and responses to 1745 in Scotland and 1798 in Ireland as essentially different. Both were a rejection of British rule with a subsequent defeat followed by repression and violence. Much the same may be said of the way in which Britain used the Irish Famine and the Clearances in Scotland – ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Returning to Scotland in the present, then, while we should reject the language of Ulsterisation as nothing more than a manipulative tool, we mustn’t be afraid to see in Scotland certain commonalities with the Irish experience. In both we see the same aggressor – the British state – and the same pattern of behaviour – British rule. We who are campaigning for independence, roughly half the population of Scotland, have become – almost with the same proportion of the population as in the six counties – a hostile population. The pro-British media is doing precisely the same to us as it was doing to the Catholics of Northern Ireland before and after Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday. Already we have seen how independence supporters have been threatened in their employment and refused promotion. Britain views us as a hostile population – a danger to British rule, and Britain will continue to use the Irish playbook against us until we are free.

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What Is The Irish Republican Army (IRA)?


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9 thoughts on “Ireland is a Key to Understanding Scotland

  1. A tad simplistic to write that Jacobitism was a rejection of British rule, and (while I agree that they were a form of ethnic cleansing) that the Clearances were instigated by the British.

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    1. Alan thanks for that comment. This was not an exhaustive history of the Jacobites or the rebellion of 1745. To say that it was not a rejection of British rule would be factually incorrect, but yes, you are correct. There is much more to it than this. But too much to be covered in any real depth in a short blog post. As for the Clearances, at no point did I say they were instigated by the British. What I said was:

      …the same may be said of the way in which Britain used the Irish Famine and the Clearances in Scotland – ethnic cleansing and genocide.

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    2. Breaking the union was definitely a huge part of the rebellions after the union. You can see jacobite weapons with anti union slogans engraved on them at the museum at Culloden. The Scottish Jacobites wanted to stop once Scotland had been taken and not go on. They chanted anti union chants when they were gathering at the start of the rebellion apparently. Independence was definitely a very strong part of Jacobitism. This is reflected in the sources. ….Maybe a bit simplistic to say it was against British rule as if Charles Edward Stuart had won Scots might have still been under it but they had reinstated the parliament when they got to Edinburgh and would not have been keen to close it down again. Murray Pittock’s ‘Culloden’ is a good book with these sources described. Also, there was around 13,000 British troops stationed right across Scotland after the 1745. Up to 10 years after in a lot of places. That strongly suggests that there was strong anti British rule feeling across the whole of Scotland for at least a decade after the defeat.
      Also, I agree the clearances one is more complicated but there was definitely a colonial feel to it and the estates that were forfeited to the crown because the clan chiefs were Jacobite’s were treated like colonised land. Trevelyan and others who worked directly with the Gaels that were cleared definitely saw them as an inferior race to be replaced. Most of the Scottish paper’s during the clearances supply various sources showing this kind of thought as most Scots outside of Gaeldom began to claim non ‘Celtic’ backgrounds. The ‘Celts’ were seen as racially inferior and so they claimed a Teutonic descent instead akin to Anglo Saxon. So, maybe not directly decided as a British policy but certainly the clearances were part of the general racist, modernist, improvement thinking of the British establishment and what followed came from this thinking.
      A good example of this is when the improvement models of agriculture that had worked in the lowlands failed in the Highlands they were more keen to blame the racially inferior Gaels (indolent and lethargic and untrustworthy etc.) instead of their own limitations (‘improvement’ doesn’t seem like such a good name for it then?). Also, they made starving Gaels work for their food (they were seen as indolent and in constant need of improving themselves) by building walls and roads etc.
      Did the British use the clearances as a chance for getting rid of as many Gaels as possible? It is certainly debatable. A lot of the landowners were at parliament of course so they changed the rules on emigration to suit them. They allowed easy emigration through legislation when they wanted rid of the population and then made it as hard as possible to emigrate when they wanted the population as a work force for Kelp or fishing for example.

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    1. I conceal many things Christina. I tend not to tell people my toilet habits, but that is different from claiming I don’t poo. Omissions and down right lies are very different things. Get back to me when this makes sense to you.

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  2. I see it everyday, those who support the Union bad mouthing Scottish Nationalists as trouble makers. Upsetting the UK Apple Cart by challenging their unfair unjust unequal ignorant rule by excluding the Scottish Gov and ridiculing Scottish MPs on a regular basis at Westminster.
    This can only lead to a war of attrition against the Union if Scotland is not given leeway on its road to Independence.
    Scotland has against it the power of the Unionist controlled media where the same media will comply with Westminster’s request to print a bad image of Scottish Nationalists namely as Terrorists, it won’t be long until this term is used to gain support using lies, propaganda and arrests.

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