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Several thousand supporters of keeping Scotland in the UK will march through Edinburgh on Saturday, as members of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland are joined by hundreds of their Protestant unionist brethren from Northern Ireland.
Yet the Better Together campaign has spurned their support. The Scottish lodge says it has “a moral obligation” to march in an event that has been planned for months. But Better Together says it has “no relationship” with the Order or the march, and neither does it want one.
The schism reveals not just how marginalised the Scottish Orange Order has become in a country where unionism has long shed its sectarian overtones. But it also demonstrates how isolated Ulster’s unionists would become inside the UK if Scotland – the spiritual home of unionism – voted to leave.
Faced with the break-up of the UK – something they have always dreaded and fought to prevent – Northern Ireland’s unionists appear powerless.
For a community that regards the Scots as kin, this is a dismaying prospect. Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen’s University Belfast, describes the relationship between Northern Ireland and Scotland as “the most emotional link in the British chain”.
Scots were the shock troops of the 17th century Plantation of Ulster, the move to colonise the province with English and Scots Protestants. Most Ulster unionists are Presbyterians, a Scottish faith. Peter Robinson, the province’s first minister, describes himself as both “an Ulster unionist and an Ulster Scot”.
Martin Mansergh, a historian and former politician in Dublin, thinks Ulster unionists exaggerate their Scots heritage. If it were real, he says, there would not be “such a disjunction between unionism in Scotland and unionism in Northern Ireland”.
But David Hume, a senior figure in the Orange Order in Belfast, said: “We feel very close to Scotland – all that historical and family and cultural background is there.” He says there is particular consternation that the Better Together camp has disdained the support of the Scottish lodge. “Do they see them as the enemy?” he wondered.
A Yes vote would have far-reaching cultural and familial implications for unionists, whose allegiance has always been to the union rather than to London. But the shrinking of the UK could also have unforeseen political reverberations across Northern Ireland. This worries not only politicians in Belfast but also the government in Dublin, which dreads the instability a victory for the Scottish nationalists might bring to Anglo-Irish relations and between unionists and nationalists in the north.
Despite the stalemate in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly, the peace process encapsulated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement remains intact. Sectarian tensions are still present but violence is rare. Even the clamour for a united Ireland among nationalists is muted by pragmatic concerns, such as participation in the existing political process.
That fragile settlement risks being upset by the Scots. The fear that this might happen has persuaded unionist leaders not to say anything that would drive voters in Scotland into the Yes camp. Such fears extend even to Sinn Féin, which says the Scottish referendum “is a matter for the Scottish people”.
If Scotland votes for independence, it is the unionists who would feel the blow most seriously. The question then is how they react to a disintegrating union. Lord Empey, a former leader of the mainstream Ulster Unionist party, said recently that, if Scotland became independent, Northern Ireland “would end up with a foreign country on one side [the Republic of Ireland to the south] and a foreign country on the other side [Scotland to the east]”.
“It is one thing to oppose Irish nationalism,” said Prof Walker. “But when the union is falling apart it is a different matter. It is difficult to know how Northern Ireland could be anything other than marginalised in a diminished United Kingdom. That would be the biggest challenge unionists have ever faced.”