Next month’s Scottish independence referendum result clings on Alex Salmond’s ability to convince Scots that they would be better off on their own. How jealous are we in Northern Ireland that such a debate can focus so closely upon issues such as economics, education and pensions? Back from the brink of political obscurity and spearheading the campaign to save the United Kingdom, Alastair Darling is a very different personality to figures we have become used to advocating unionism here in Northern Ireland. In last week’s televised debate with Salmond, Darling stated that the referendum should be about Scotland’s future and not patriotism. Here, more unionist leaders should strive to strike this kind of chord, look to the future rather than the past, and highlight their own economic arguments to convince all shades of the electorate to the benefits of the union.
Launching the Better Together campaign in June 2012, Darling declared that those in favour of the union had a duty to work in harmony to argue for a united and open country. Darling boasts what he perceives as a country made up of diversity, a community among regions which stand together, positive about all identities shared. Compare Darling’s Scottish ambitions with those of Northern Ireland, long bound legally to the union but socially, economically and politically adrift. Moving on from conflict is never easy but today national expression among unionists should be about so much more than devotion to the monarch, union jacks and armed forces, like things that all communities can celebrate without divided loyalties or histories lingering, that can forge rather than force a shared identity and sense of belonging. Darling talks about Scotland as “our country” and “partner”, phrases which could easily be used more within our own province, by unionists as well as nationalists, not just during political party conference season.
Like with our own national question, there are legitimate arguments for and against Scottish independence but respect for others and opposing visions for better standards of living ought to be at the heart of debate. On the topic of currency last week, Darling claimed Salmond had no Plan B, something Salmond’s silence appeared to confirm. Not long after being bailed out by the IMF and now emerging from recession the Republic of Ireland is welcoming business with open arms, a period ironically coinciding with the rise and rise of the leftist Sinn Féin party across the island. This is not to over-exaggerate momentum specifically across both jurisdictions for a united Ireland, but Northern Ireland’s unionists should be camping outside 10 Downing Street lobbying for the powers of taxation to compete with our Southern neighbours, determined to prove the North can make its own way. Darling’s demand of Salmond to ignore romanticism and enter into conversation about pensions, university tuition fees, prescriptions and prospects for business are demands we should hear in the media and from politicians on both sides, not tit-for-tat squabbles over the past and identity.
As a campaign against Scotland breaking away, the natural foundations of Better Together were always going to be the fears and risks of independence but despite this, and Darling’s at times sarcastic debating manner, his prevailing inclusive approach contrasts starkly with the siege mentality of unionist nationalism we have often seen here. Northern Ireland’s unionist leaders should look to Darling’s example, reflect on their own arguments for the union and, like nationalist leaders too, realise that there is more to being a part of Britain or Ireland than emblems and symbolism. Without a credible vision and ability to persuade others of the benefits of their cause, unionists will ironically continue to cut Northern Ireland further adrift from the same UK community they have long sought to remain a part of.