The strange case of Irish heritage Scots and the Scottish National Party

The strange case of Irish heritage Scots and the Scottish National Party

by Tom Gallagher
article from Friday 27, April, 2018

IT WAS ALEX SALMOND who I have to thank for alerting me to the changes that were sweeping through Scotland’s Catholic community, (originally of mainly Irish descent).  In mid-2014, not long after the Commonwealth Games had been launched at a ceremony held in at the football stadium of Glasgow Celtic, he had announced that Glasgow was ‘Freedom City’, It would vote for Scottish independence, he confidently asserted. 

Some strategists trying to obtain a ‘Yes’ answer to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” had been fatalistic about garnering much support among this demographic. It didn’t appear likely that a mainly working-class community long seen as socially conservative and introspective, as well as bound to the hip to the Labour Party, could help make history. 

As late as the 2010 General election, the votes of many in this community had been crucial in minimising the scale of Gordon Brown’s losses. But on 18 September 2014, 56 per cent of a Catholics, still mainly located in west-central Scotland voted Yes. By contrast only 40.9 per cent of Protestants did so. 

Within weeks thousands of Irish heritage people swelled the ranks of the SNP as the membership quadrupled in size to well over 100,000. In the 2015 general election, record-breaking swings of 30 per cent and more delivered West of Scotland seats to the SNP  where, during the Margaret Thatcher era, it often struggled to retain its electoral deposit.

Near the end of what had been an 18-month referendum campaign foolishly ceded to its opponents by the Cameron government, I had warned about the growing restiveness of the community.  Within it an illusion of invulnerability had grown up fuelled by evangelical campaigning in downscale parts of post-industrial Scotland. Buttressed by far-left campaigners, SNP politicians frequently rejected in the polls, were believed when they insisted that the same level of health and welfare services could be provided in a future post-British Scotland with a tax base of around 3 million as compared with the existing  all-UK tax base of approaching 50 million. 

Appeals to egalitarianism and social justice were combined with ramping up anti-British sentiment. It had never been politicised during the late 20th century conflict in nearby Northern Ireland. But it was in 2014 as a range of forces linked the Scottish self-government cause with ‘the rebel’ traditions of the Catholic community; hitherto these had mainly been ploughed into fanatical devotion for the cause of Celtic football club and its Irish symbolism. 

Many observed how Yes campaign rallies had a quasi-religious aura. By now there was clear evidence of a sharp fall-off in religious observance with nominal Catholics perhaps approaching devotional ones in numbers. A new generation had grown up which no longer listened to traditional clerical leaders about avoiding casual relationships, divorce, and experiments in high-risk lifestyles.

Risk-taking and defiance of social norms replaced the meek conformity which had marked the lives of earlier generations. 

Against this background the conversion to what had previously been seen as the impractical cause of Scottish nationalism (tarnished in some eyes by overtly Protestant associations), does not appear quite so extraordinary. Moved out of their inner-city enclaves to often remote housing schemes, this community evokes comparison with those Scots who fifty years earlier moved from overcrowded cities to New Towns like East Kilbride and promptly started to vote for the SNP. 

Without becoming complacent, the good news for Unionists is that the SNP has struggled to effectively harvest this bumper crop of new voters. It didn’t really understand  how to relate to the new converts. It sought to engage them through ethnically-focussed politicians who have won election on its coat-tails. It was helped by some high-profile Catholic professionals from the worlds of academia, media and medicine who went over to the SNP during the referendum drama. 

But the SNP has been complacent and arrogant in its approach to the community. It persisted with the legislation (introduced in 2012) to criminalise football fans for singing partisan songs often associated with Irish events, long after it was viewed as wildly unpopular. It badly mishandled the internecine conflict which soon erupted between old and new members of the SNP in North Lanarkshire. With mutual accusation of cronyism and bodyguards needed for party meetings, Nicola Sturgeon ignored pleas to step in personally and asked the MEP Alyn Smith to co-author a report which was finalised two years ago but remains unpublished.    

In the 2017 general election, where the SNP lost one-third of its seats, most attention was focussed on the near wipe-out suffered in the North-East. The party’s first power-base, hubris and neglect arguably led to the departure of Alex Salmond and others. Less noted were two losses in North Lanarkshire where the party had powered ahead in 2014-15 and a collapse in SNP majorities across west-central Scotland. 

The SNP has increasingly acquired the features of a Scottish regional party.  How long its Clydeside hegemony will endure is unclear. But it appears to be making far fewer preparations to build up a fiefdom based on the delivery of solid benefits to the lower-income voters it courts than Labour did seventy years ago.  

The 2014 case for independence based on a reliable flow of oil revenues has been shredded. Now that it controls Glasgow city council, the SNP could place the emphasis on governing well. But it flounders as shown in Sturgeon’s own Glasgow Southside constituency where an action plan, hailed by the SNP as being the answer to mounting difficulties with integrating the growing Roma community, seems to be sinking into a bureaucratic morass.

Most of Sturgeon’s time in office has been fought waging a quixotic crusade to halt or neuter Brexit. It has not resonated with her voting base as shown by the low-turnout in working-class areas of Glasgow in the June 2016 EU referendum and the very large percentage of SNP supporters who voted Leave.  

Arguably, she has also stumbled by being outspoken about alleged threats to the Northern Ireland peace process posed by Brexit and by working with the Irish government to try and economically detach the province from the rest of Britain by demanding it remain part of the EU single market.

As a result the SNP is no longer reticent about taking sides in Ulster politics. A veteran critic, the ex-UK government minister and director of Celtic FC, Brian Wilson, warned in 2017 that Nationalists were importing loaded political language from Ireland, which risked inflaming tension between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland.  He called it a “deliberate attempt to sectarianise Scottish politics” but it doesn’t appear to be working. 

Most Irish heritage Scots lack concrete links with Ireland and those who do visit usually go to areas in the west of Ireland that were pole-axed by EU-led austerity meant to bail out Irish banks.  They lost their post offices, banks, police stations and a range of essential health services.

Despite Kenny MacAskill  playing up an Irish economic recovery, it is confined to Dublin and a few niche areas.

The Labour Party in Scotland has not been obliterated as many assumed in 2015 and the latest poll shows it at 27 per cent. As Yes activists try but fail to conjure the golden atmosphere of the 2014 Indy referendum, many Irish heritage Scots are becoming less evangelical about the SNP.

Like this populist party, the community moved from isolation and marginality to an increasingly mainstream position in Scottish life. Inter-communal sectarianism lost its intensity. Upward mobility gathered pace. But it was to Irish heritage Scots stuck in poverty, or confronting ill-health and with a lot to feel negative about whom the SNP appealed to. Lacking any model for self-rule and keen to identify itself with ostensibly radical causes across the world, the SNP traded on feelings of negation. 

The SNP has grown radical and disruptive but I suspect only a minority of this community shares its rebel and anti-imperialist obsessions. Most are concerned with the challenges of everyday living and do not find being part of Britain intolerable. More stinging defeats probably beckon for the SNP unless it starts to ‘wise up’ about the needs of its newest followers. 

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who lives in Edinburgh. He published ‘Scotland Now’ A Warning to the World’ in 2016. His 14th single-authored book and debut novel, ‘Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue’, came out in MarchHis twitter account is @cultfree54

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