Sunday, 30 March 2014

Saving our High Streets or Killing Them? - Fake Shop Fronts

 By David Symington for Issue 13 of The Ulster Folk

Since the rise in popularity of out of town shopping centres our traditional high streets have been in steady decline.  The convenience of easy parking and a range of stores all under one roof means that battling to find a parking space on the high street before trudging up and down cluttered pavements, laden with various shopping bags, no longer has the appeal that it used too.  Many attempts to rekindle our previous love affair with the high street have so far come to nothing.  If our high street shops are truly to thrive once more then we need to have a complete rethink of what they should be offering the consumer.

What many believe to be the high street’s one advantage is the unique shopping experience that it can potentially offer.  An experience that invites the consumer to stay for hours, shopping at a relaxed pace in an atmosphere of creativity and friendliness. An area of destination shops and boutiques offering goods that are not readily available elsewhere combined with a coffee shop and wine bar culture.

If this is our desired goal for our high streets then we have a long way to travel before we get there.  Many of Northern Ireland’s high streets are now simply littered with betting shops and charity stores, interspersed between ugly, drawn down shutters that mark the graves of shops that have since permanently closed their doors.

As a first step on the road to recovery we need to address these reminders of failure. Our high streets cannot recover if they remain uninviting places to be in.  While it is not possible to simply create numerous thriving boutiques overnight and install them in every empty high street premise, it is possible to create that appearance.  Instead of simply having drawn down shutters and boarded up windows we can install temporary shop fronts that give passers-by the realistic feel that they are walking past high quality shops.  It would also give local artists and engineers’ opportunities to create their own businesses, by designing and creating better and more individual shop fronts that can be rented and moved from one place to the next as and when they are required.

This tactic was first used in 1980s New York and has been repeated in many areas since, most notably perhaps during the G8 summit in Fermanagh and along the main routes to Stormont in Belfast. Failure only tends to breed more failure and our high street recovery will not take place until we first make them places that consumers want to be in and stay in.

This approach is not without its critics however. Many existing high street owners feel that it merely covers over the problem without addressing the real practical business needs, such as lower business rates and long term planning.  That if the failure is out of sight then the issue will remain out of mind.  These are genuine concerns and it only goes to prove just how hard the battle to breathe life back into our high streets really is.


Monday, 24 March 2014

Black Sheep Gallery

As you head out of Broughshane along the Knockan Road, in the direction of Clough, you’ll soon realise you’ve passed through the Gateway to the Glens. The scene is picturesque, rolling rural with extensive views to the hills of Antrim.  Idyllic landscape indeed: providing abundance of inspirational sight, sound and silence for the artist.  It’s no surprise then that professional artists would take advantage of this environment to make this home and work base.
In 2009 Hernan Farias developed a reputation in his native Santiago as a master photographer. Growing up in a working-class Chilean household, Hernan had a notion of photography but couldn’t afford a camera.
One day he found a camera lying beside his car in a shopping mall car park.  It looked like an expensive piece of equipment, so honest Hernan handed it over to the mall security.  No one claimed ownership of the camera so the honest mall security people passed the camera back to Hernan and told him to keep it.  So he had a camera but didn’t know how to use it.  Not to worry, he sought out Polish photographer Wieslaw Olejinczak, recognised as one of the top fashion photographers in Chile.  Hernan took lessons once a week for a year and then Olejinczak took him on as one of his assistants: for one year, before employing Hernan as his number one assistant in 2008.
Hernan started to make a name for himself as a skilled artisan which resulted in him doing a major photo shoot for the international fashion magazine, Vogue.  He had arrived; attaining a level of recognition in Chile, that when he had acquired his first camera, he could only have dreamt of aspiring to.  He then set off to move to the far side of Broughshane.
Judith explained that this was partially to do with a bad case of ‘home is where the heart is’ and also the fact that the education system in Chile was considerably inferior to that of her homeland. They have three children.
They moved here in 2009.  Judith had spent a year teaching English in Spain before moving to Chile, where she met Hernan and lived there for nine years.  To the rear of their beautiful home they have converted a farm outbuilding into a shared studio and a gallery. 
Judith’s art is captivating as you walk through the door.  It is folk art and has been described as na├»ve figurative with influence from the Renaissance period.  Much of it is rural, in sync with nature, in sync with the Maker’s art beyond the gallery windows.  It is feminine dominated: it is the end result of an artist who has found a oneness with her art form, expressing her inner character with confidence.
The ground floor is a gallery filled with the captivating imagery of Judith’s paintings with Hernan’s photo studio adjoining.  Upstairs is the art studio.  The building itself has been converted with art-felt tastefulness.  The old is retained with the brightness of modern: the wood burning stove securing the ambience of warmth.
For Judith she is fulfilling her dream life, re-bonding with her family circle in the land where she grew up.  For Hernan of course it is not quite as simple.  His story is typical of the challenge that faces any new immigrant to this country.  Ulster folk are renowned for being a warm friendly bunch but generally we’re not that great at understanding and fully accepting people from foreign lands.  This stems from the fact that we have lived among our ain folk for generations and have developed unique subtle forms of communication through distinct local forms of speech and body language. Much often gets lost in translation and we don’t easily comprehend the challenges that face those from beyond the hills, never mind beyond the sea.
Having said that, Hernan is gradually getting the message across that he is a master of his trade.  He did get off to a fortunate start.  Just after he had moved to his somewhat secluded rural home he started to promote his work on Facebook and was noticed by international fashion model, and former Miss Northern Ireland, Lucy Evangelista.  Lucy was impressed by his work and was discussing, on Facebook, the possibility of engaging the Chilean photographer for a photo shoot.
Lucy enquired whereabouts he had moved to in Northern Ireland, Hernan told her he lived near Broughshane.   Lucy replied, “I live near Broughshane as well, where are you exactly?”  “On the Knockan Road” he replied.  When Hernan gave Lucy more details of the exact location and description of his house she was silent for a moment before informing him that she was looking out her window across the road at his house.
Social media was designed to be global and not meant to facilitate business meetings with your closest neighbours.  In this case the rules were broken.  The now London-based, globetrotting former Miss Northern Ireland was his first professional photo-shoot outside of Santiago: he has been much sought after since.
You too can communicate with Hernan on Facebook or through
Judith’s paintings, prints and cards are also on display in Belfast at Charles Gilmore Gallery, in Holywood at The Yard Gallery and in Bushmills at the new Gallery 1608.

The Black Sheep Gallery is at 125 Knockan Road, Broughshane. Tel: 028 2586 2889

Sunday, 23 March 2014

THEATRE: at The Mill and at Twadell

Theatre at the Mill and Theatre at Twadell.

By Willie Drennan for Issue 13 of The Ulster Folk

What do Newtownabbey Borough Council and the Parades Commission have in common?

The answer to the above is that they have both made decisions that have interfered with liberty and freedom of expression. They both demonstrate the extent of intolerance that pervades society in Northern Ireland: that cripples prospect for progress towards a modern progressive tolerant society.

The banning of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Bible play by Newtownabbey Borough Council, from performing at their Theatre at the Mill, was like a blast from a former age. No doubt a satirical play based on the Bible will contain material that some Christians will find hurtful. When this play was first conceived the authors would have had this in mind and would have gambled on protests to ensure box-office success. In this case they probably had their folk on the ground calling up DUP councillors to complain on their behalf.

The fact is this; there are people in our society who actively want to suppress the freedom of speech and expression of those they disagree with. The best thing devout Christians could have done was to totally ignore the Bible Play, stay away from the performance to avoid offence and not offer it massive media attention.

 Too late for that now. I had never heard of the Bible Play or The Reduced Theatre Company until it was banned.

On the brighter side the Newtownabbey Borough Council had a re-think and the play was able to go ahead as planned. The same thing has yet to happen with the banning of cultural expression on the Crumlin Road last July 12th. The difference in this case is that the Parades Commission seems to have the general backing of the media and a majority of politicians to uphold this enforcement of intolerance. The issues may be more complex than with the Bible Play but it’s exactly the same principle in my mind.

The solution for those who find Orange or Loyalist parades offensive is exactly the same. They should just ignore them, stay away from the performance to avoid offence and not offer them massive media attention.

 Too late for that now. The Twelfth of July celebrations in 2014 will surely be the biggest in recent times and the international media will be here in force.

Is it stretching imagination too far to consider the possibility that Loyalists often surreptitiously complain to the Parades Commission in order to promote Loyalist culture?




Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why Folk Should Stand Against Fracking.

Elli Kontorravdis, Friends of the Earth, Queen's University Belfast

Many people have written powerfully and at length about the inevitability of water, air and land pollution, the climate change arguments, the health impacts, and the long-term economic arguments against unconventional oil and gas extraction. Rather than repeating these cases in abstract I feel that it would instead be useful to look at some of them in the context of Northern Ireland, focusing on why fracking specifically poses such a danger to us here.

Four petroleum exploration licenses have been issued in Northern Ireland (in Fermanagh, South Antrim, North Antrim-East L/Derry, and Rathlin Island), with a fifth license in North Down being considered.

Resource Use and Pollution
Given that our two greatest industries are Agriculture and Tourism exploiting an energy source that will harm them can only be described as dangerous short-termism. Fracking is extremely water intense, using on average 11 million litres per well. Tamboran, the Canadian-based shale gas exploration company, estimate that they could have 3000 wells in an area the size North Leitrim/West Fermanagh, raising significant questions as to the impact this could have on public and agricultural water access. This becomes even more problematic in light of the evidence as to contamination risks; some 20-80% of the chemically laced water used remains in the well after each frack, mixing with underground substances such as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material and posing a high risk to nearby aquifers. The 20-80% of used water that returns to the surface undergoes an intense treatment process, though studies have demonstrated that the water is still not suitable for human consumption and yet it could enter our food chain.

Northern Ireland is densely populated, so wherever we chose to frack will unavoidably be near where people live, thereby increasing the damage that can be expected when any of the aforementioned pollution risks materialise. In addition, many of our waterways cross the border; this is particularly a problem in the West where water courses link to the River Shannon and as a result threaten to carry toxins across the entire length of this island.

Fracking will not bring us the jobs or give us the energy independence we need; any jobs will be temporary as it is a temporary solution to our energy woes which by not resolving now will mean even greater public expenditure in the years that follow, as well as the considerable public expense that can be expected in dealing with pollution incidences. By investing in the infrastructure that the unconventional industry needs, for example developing a viable gas network, Northern Ireland deprives itself of investment in long term energy solutions, such as the urgently needed electrical smartgrid to collect and distribute the energy from already operational renewable developments.

The Regulatory Context
Many supporters of unconventional extraction cite that most of the concerns can be managed within a strong regulatory framework - with tough laws, enforcement, and compensation. However, considerable doubt has been cast on how effective regulation is; the influential United Nations Environment Programme recognises that there may be 'unavoidable environmental impacts even if unconventional gas is extracted properly'.

Northern Ireland has a damning history of environmental regulation and enforcement. The extent to which our current environmental laws are being misapplied and unenforced amounts to a systemic failure of governance, meaning that our framework is so weak that future harm from breaches of it is so likely that it seems unavoidable.

There are multiple elements contributing to this weak governance, for example we have no independent Environmental Protection Agency – the body that enforces the laws, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, is connected to the Department of the Environment, a body which itself proposes developments, this creates the perception that the Department may have influence over what the Environment Agency enforces. Furthermore, the Environment Agency is greatly under-resourced and so has been unable to offer consistent monitoring and enforcement, leading to scandals such as the illegal landfilling operation recently outlined by the independent Mills report which alone will require some £250 million to clear up.

To make matters worse our planning system is open to corruption - Northern Ireland is the only part of these islands, and one of the only parts of the Western world, which does not make public who donates money to politicians. This creates the damaging impression that developers, including those in the unconventionals industry, may be donating large sums of money in order to gain more favourable planning conditions. Our regulatory framework does not seem capable of coping with developments as dangerous as fracking, or any contentious developments at all.

There is No Fracking Way

In summary we are geographically not well placed to cope with the risks, the costs to our local industries and our limited public purse far outweigh any profits, and we don't have the necessary infrastructure to distribute the gas, resulting in both the gas and the profits being shipped off by the overseas companies that hold the licenses, leaving our land exploited and us quite literally out in the cold.

40% of people in Northern Ireland live in fuel poverty, they have to make a choice between heating their homes and eating, fracking will bring neither independence nor the affordability these people need. Locally owned renewable energy could solve many of the needs that fracking masquerades as being able to, but for the benefit of local people and without all the environmental degradation.

The Department of the Environment's announcement of a presumption against fracking until the department is satisfied of the environmental impact provides an encouraging pause for thought, but makes little effort to deal with the Northern Ireland specific problems, or take steps to introduce a ban. Until then it is essential that if we care about this land then we do not give the industry a social license; we actively participate in the planning process, and we persist in pushing our politicians for a ban – especially now in the run up to the May elections where Councillors are particularly open to hearing our views. Ultimately we need to make use of the abundance of our renewable energy potential and take a hold of our own clean energy fortunes.



Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Haass Thing

[By Willie Drennan for Issue 13 of The Ulster Folk]

I think it is fair to say that some positives came out of the Haass experiment. In particular it allowed for debate on our political and social problems in a holistic manner. I think our politicians now understand that it is a good idea to deal with delicate and controversial issues in a manner that considers the bigger picture and considers the impact that such decisions can have on the country as a whole. It is the sort of debate that should have happened before the famous Belfast City Council decision on the flying of the national flag at Belfast City Hall.

We aren’t really that much further forward, are we? I think it might have to do with the fact that the Haass Team were listening primarily to the proposals of the five main political parties at Stormont who were hiring their services. They certainly didn’t listen to me.

I sent in a contribution in the official manner, as printed in Issue 12 of the Ulster Folk and linked other blogs and comments via the #Haass hashtag on Twitter: which they are bound to have read. They didn’t consider my point however, that what was needed was clear common sense guidelines on parades and protests that would apply for all: irrespective of political or religious persuasion. Guidelines that considered human rights and freedoms while ensuring that deliberate offensive acts would be dealt with by the law.

They didn’t address my suggestion that a line of differentiation should be drawn between parades commemorating historic events, such as those of 1912 -1922, and parades that make reference to the recent Troubles. Simply put, such parades should have restrictions if they pass by the homes or memorials to recent victims of the Troubles.

Okay, I perhaps shouldn’t have used the term common sense: that clearly upset them and they’ve flung my correspondences in the bin.

Seems like the flags aspect of the talks was also dumped in the bin early on as Sinn Fein insisted on the flying of the Irish Tricolour alongside, in parity with, the Union Flag: or else no flag.

 They also didn’t pay any heed to the idea of having three tiers of flags flying from government buildings. Firstly, that the Union Flag would fly in a prime position accompanied by a new agreed Northern Ireland flag as a secondary status. A third tier would then be the flags of the neighbouring states of England, Wales and Scotland, irrespective of the outcome of the Scots Referendum: AND, the Irish tricolour. This would demonstrate to visitors that at last we have reached maturity where we can acknowledge the national flag, yet have our own regional flag and have healthy, working and social relationships with all our neighbours.

This would not take away from anyone’s aspiration to have political and constitutional change for a United Ireland that would once again change the order of the flags.

By the way, I fail to grasp how the notion of flying the national flag on designated days only is a compromise? The media often commented that the flag protesters didn’t know there was a Union Flag flying above the Belfast City Hall until it was taken down. That could also be said of the majority of people in Belfast, as designated days are not a meaningful compromise to anyone. On days that it does fly it is a confirmation that Northern Ireland is British and when it does not fly it is a confirmation that we are a fragile, dysfunctional State in a constitutional limbo-land.

They didn’t pay much attention to my suggestion that we really need to re-examine the language of the Belfast Agreement to determine and clarify the constitutional position of Northern Ireland: to clarify the difference between nationality and citizenship.

I think it’s that common sense thing again that I said. I’ll have to learn to tone down my language.

To be a bit cynical there were an awful lot of people, who said from the moment the Haass talks were first announced, that these talks were designed to facilitate the needs of the main parties at Stormont and weren’t primarily about finding widespread resolution. While we are absolutely no further forward in resolving issues of flags and parading, the five main parties have managed to convince their faithful voters that they have made a firm stance on their behalf.


Thursday, 13 March 2014


Northern Ireland's economy is in transformation from being manufacture based, such as shipbuilding at Harland and Wolf, to being Public Sector dependant. Innovative alternatives are the order of the day. The recent oil rig restoration project temporarily lit up skies of potential for Belfast.

Economy in Transformation

Ian Parsley

[For Issue 13 of TheUlsterFolk]

The Belfast Telegraph is to be commended for having a front page on wages rather than Haass this day in January (not that I could find it in the online version).  It noted that "wages" (actually, annual salaries) are £8,000 higher in the Republic of Ireland and £5,000 in Great Britain than in Northern Ireland.  However, the obvious assumption that high wages are a good thing needs challenged.

Currently, Germany is seen as the star pupil of the European economic class, while Ireland is seen as one of the problem children.  How different it was ten years ago!  What changed?

Essentially, the problem up to around 2003-4 was that German wages were too high.  This meant that it was easier, even for German companies, to out-source jobs elsewhere.  Audis came to be assembled in Spain, Volkswagens in Slovakia, Siemens call centres even sprang up in England. The response - actually of Gerhard Schroeder's government although Angela Merkel has ended up with most of the political credit - was to reduce unemployment benefits and use the savings to help people up-skill and find new jobs.  In turn, this put downward pressure on German wages, which have barely risen in real terms over the past decade. However, this also put downward pressure on the cost of living, and made Germany a much more attractive investment location - hence a current unemployment rate of around 5%, with even youth unemployment well under 10%.

That high wages can be a curse rather than a blessing is demonstrated the other way around too. In Ireland, the second stage of the Celtic Tiger boom saw wages soar, an unbelievable 50%.  This in turn put upward pressure on public sector salaries and drove up the cost of living (most obviously property prices).  However, unable to devalue its currency (because it didn't have one of its own any more), this made Ireland an incredibly expensive place to employ anyone.  What happened was the reverse of what happened in Germany - unemployment reached 15% and even that was shielded by emigration levels reaching astonishing levels (in fact coming close, comparatively, to those of Northern Ireland's at the height of the Troubles).  The glee with which the Irish Government recently borrowed money at an interest rate of 3.3% is misplaced, as this is far higher than is affordable (with economic growth still low), and already the cost of living in Dublin is soaring alarmingly - in part due to wages being at a still unsustainable level.  Thankfully it is not all bad news, as Irish exports (the only way of creating wealth to pay off the country's vast debts) are improving.

The lesson is that, to be sustainable, wage levels must reflect the value of the work produced. In Northern Ireland, there is a mix of bad and good news here.  The bad news is that our private sector wages do remain far too low, a consequence largely of a (deliberate but thankfully now abandoned) policy of promoting Northern Ireland specifically as a low-wage investment location. In fact, low wages by European standards make it impossible to compete on wages against truly low-wage economies (obviously China), but also make it impossible for businesses here to recruit competitively either against the public sector here or against the private sector in neighbouring jurisdictions - it would be interesting in the effect on the corporation tax debate of businesses promising to use any reduction to increase wages.  The objective in fact is to compete on quality, which is where we have the good news.  We are now doing the right things on skills to enable our workforce to contribute more value to the economy and thus increase wages sustainably - including a huge expansion in STEM undergraduate places, a key ICT Action Plan, a currently on-going Review of Apprenticeships and other measures introduced in the past three years targeted specifically at the needs of the modern economy. We must now begin doing similar things in our schools, where still too much esteem is given to professions which do not create wealth - something we must do if we are to compete globally and continue to afford the free health and comprehensive welfare systems we rightly cherish.

It is good that the debate around wages has started; but we must also be aware that comparatively high wages are not necessarily a good thing.   Wage levels must be sustainable in the longer term.  To do that, we need to focus on education and skills - areas in which Northern Ireland is now beginning to do the right things and has the potential, before long, to excel.



Saturday, 8 March 2014

Report By David Thompson - What Has Twitter Done To Our Political Debate?

As twitter approaches its eighth birthday, David Thompson looks at what effect it has had on political debate in Northern Ireland. Has it improved public discourse or lumped us into groups of our own choosing? Newton Emerson, Orna Young, Brian John Spencer and Gareth Mulvenna offer their views.

Friday, 7 March 2014

FREEDOM by Gordon Johnston for our Issue 13

We live in the heart of Western democracy and sit in judgement of failed communist states throughout the world, corrupt dictatorships, oppressive regimes and religious fundamentalists. We lament the lack of freedom enjoyed by their citizens, proud of the freedom enjoyed here, but how free are we really in Northern Ireland?


We can visit a local supermarket and buy a range of products from all over the world. We can buy fruit and vegetables out of season and if we can afford it the very best electronic goods that our hearts desire.


In terms of freedom, some of us face extreme personal debt amassed through credit cards, some may have bought items such as cars and furniture on credit and many of us have large mortgage debts. These financial pressures, all impact upon our freedom. We are not free to do or spend as we want with these debts hanging over us or there will be consequences. This restriction though has been brought about through our freedom to choose and as such is the consequence of our freedom.


In a similar vein some of us may have children or care for sick relatives. We are not free to do as we may wish in these circumstances but again we have actively chosen to pursue such a life and these are the responsibilities attached with such a life.


These are all distractions though from the true threat to our freedom.


None of us are truly free in Northern Ireland. We are oppressed and are treated to the illusion of freedom but the reality is that we are free-range slaves.


Who provides education in Northern Ireland? Who provides healthcare in Northern Ireland? Who resolves criminal action in Northern Ireland? Who provides pensions? Who provides payments to those looking for work or are too sick to work? The state provides all of this.


Who decides where or when we can build property? Who decides what employers can pay their staff? Who decides where the roads will go? Who decides where we can park our cars? Who decides that we need a license for a dog or television? The state in her oppressive wisdom robs us of all these freedoms.


We have no choice in paying for the privilege of this service and if we refuse to pay the taxation to fund this we will be imprisoned.


We don’t have any meaningful choice in provider of education. The uniform may be different but it is the same system. With all that I have mentioned it is the same story. The state apparatus does not tolerate competition. We can take what the state provides or we can do without.


How long would a private enterprise last with such an attitude? The only reason the state gets away with this is down to our compliance. We have forgotten that we do not need the state. We can exist in happiness without it. We can resist and defiantly reject intrusions of the state upon our lives. It is long past time we retook our freedom.

Issue 13.  In a good newsagents near you.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Burns and the Referendum.

By Willie Drennan [For Issue 13 of The Ulster Folk]
Burns Nights are remarkably popular in Northern Ireland. What would the Immortal Bard think of Scotland separating from Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?
 Rabbie Burns (1759-1796) will no doubt be birling in his grave at the claims by certain folk that they know how Scotland’s National Bard would vote, if he were around, in the upcoming Scots Referendum in September 2014.
The reality is this bard was a complex character who considered the views and concerns of everyone. He gave great consideration to the politics of his day: he scrutinised political doctrines and offered opinions through his poetry and letters to friends and correspondents. It is true that he was a Scottish patriot, with songs such as Scots Wha Hae Wi’ Wallace Bled and A Parcel O Rogues In A Nation. In ‘A Parcel O Rogues’ he was taking a swipe at the Scottish aristocracy who “were bought and sold for English gold” in the early 18th Century prior to the Act of Union in 1707. Today he would take those same sentiments and try to weigh up if it was the selling out to English gold, European gold, or international gold that was the current problem. He would probably also consider the possibility of an independent Scotland becoming subservient to even greater parcels of Brussels-based multi-national rogues.
Those in Scotland today who are campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote seem to consist of a mixture of republicans, British monarchists and Jacobite sympathisers. The Jacobites will point out that Burns re-wrote and recorded old romantic Jacobite songs for the Scots Musical Museum but probably won’t note his songs on the battles of Sherramuir and Killiecrankie: nor his, Ye Jacobites By Name which highlight the futility of the Jacobite cause. They will also dismiss any significance to the fact that Burns attended a church service in 1788, which commemorated the centenary of the landing of King Billy in Britain.
The ‘Yes’ campaigners who would like to see the monarchy retained, with an independent Scotland remaining as part of the British Commonwealth, will be able to point out that Burns swore allegiance to the British King George while working as an exciseman.  Republicans will also be able to highlight Burns’ sympathy for the ideals of the French and American Revolutions.
They will do well however not to mention that after the French Revolution, when France threatened to invade Britain, Burns joined and actually helped to form the Dumfries Volunteers for the purpose of defending Britain against a possible French attack.  When Burns died in July 1796 he was buried with full military honours. For the Dumfries Volunteers he wrote Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?  ‘No’ campaigners could be forgiven for making reference to this song with verses like:
“Be Britain still to Britain true, Amang oursels united!
For never but by British hands, Maun British wrangs be righted!”
Perhaps some ‘Yes’ campaigners however, who are also Burns’ fans, will find solace in this song’s closing lines:
“But while we sing God save the King, We’ll ne’er forget the people"

Nationhood and Independence in Scotland

Nationhood and Independence in Scotland

Hannah McCooke


Here in Edinburgh; the clock is ticking.  We are speeding towards the great Independence referendum, when Scotland will decide whether to remain within the union or to break off and form a new nation.  Attitudes towards it are complex, ranging from impassioned to fearful and ultimately confused.  But something is happening attitudes are changing.  Bubbling under the surface of these debates is a question bigger than, ‘Will we have an army?’ or ‘Will we use the Euro?’ the question underneath it all, is a simple but powerful one; ‘Who do we want to be?’. 


Scotland is changing rapidly, and defining itself as much by what it is, as what it is not.  For Indy supporters, their new Scotland is the perfect opportunity to challenge a system that is failing them.  At the heart, is a distain for the capitalist governmental system being fed down from Westminster, which has oppressed, demonised and impoverished the working class.


Sitting in my student’s union, a young woman sits opposite me.  On her lapel, a pin reads ‘Independent Socialist Scotland’. For many Yes voters the working class identity is more crucial even than their national sense of self.  To view the Yes vote as a bitter anti-English notion is a complete misunderstanding of the Scottish identity.  To call self-determination racist or bigoted is a simple way to tell Scotland to sit down and shut up. 


When the electoral registration form came through my door a few weeks ago, my flatmate told me I had no right to vote, and he was horrified that all people who lived in Scotland were allowed to vote in the referendum regardless of whether they considered themselves Scottish or not.  As an Ulster-Scot my heritage is crucial to me - an incredibly important part of how I define myself and how I feel about Scotland.  As an immigrant in his eyes: my opinion is of less worth, but this is not, the ‘New Scotland’.  A ‘New Scotland’ is a nation that looks outwards and embraces a distinctly 21st century international spirit.  My flatmate speaks against this spirit from a strong unionist standpoint, thus exposing how deeply the Better Together cause has misunderstood the way Scotland is changing and redefining itself in the wake of the referendum.


The Yes campaign have made considerable efforts to argue against the unionist assumption that the right to vote is a blood right.  Campaigning materials are available in a variety of languages highlighting the importance of an immigrant demographic to the overall vote.  One flier currently in circulation on campus here reads ‘Tak’, and expresses the importance of Polish families voting Yes to provide them with the future they imagined here in Scotland.  Polish is now often referred to as Scotland’s second language, so providing this information in this form allows people to hope for a new, independence led chapter in their Scots-Polish heritage.  The Better Together campaign however, advertise themselves as a ‘patriotic’ campaign, which removes an entire demographic from their focus - those who embrace a different model of patriotism than what is suggested by David Cameron, who this morning tried to evoke fond nostalgia in the hearts of Scots. He spoke from the Olympic Stadium in East London, providing no firm reason for Scotland to remain within the union, but simply attempting to invoke an outdated notion of British sentimentality.


I cannot know whether Independence would be the right choice for Scotland, but I do know that the current political system does not work, and that a change is coming regardless of the outcome of the referendum.  Better Together have fatally misunderstood the Scottish identity and what Scots want their post-referendum nation to become - an inclusive country that looks forward rather than clinging to an outdated and institutionalised Britain.  If the UK seeks to have any hope of retaining Scotland they will need to dramatically change their tactics, and the entire political system into one that effectively serves Scotland in a way, which currently it is completely failing to do.  Whether a ‘New Scotland’, or a ‘New Britain’ is on the horizon remains uncertain, but what we can be sure of, is that huge change is crucial not just for Scotland, but for all of Great Britain.


Hannah McCooke