Sitting in an Edinburgh restaurant nursing a second cappuccino and glass of wine. Trying earlier to eavesdrop unobtrusively on two Scottish gentlemen at a nearby table having ice cream and in sombre mood. A definite feeling of sadness. As an Irish friend of Scottish independence, I, like so many others, had hoped for an epic night of celebration last night, marking the dawn of a new polity in the family of nations, an ally and friend for Ireland in the context of these islands, Europe and the world. So much in common to unite us: a shared Gaelic linguistic heritage and millennia of historical influence through St Colm Cille (Columba), the kingdom of Dalriada and migration; centuries of common experience with England (a lot bad, a lot good, too); the kinship and creative tension and disturbance caused by the (largely) Scottish plantation of Ulster which gave Ireland its biggest Protestant denomination (and, paradoxically, had a big influence on Irish Republicanism); the contribution of Edinburgh-born James Connolly, socialist and 1916 leader to Irish independence – and so much, much more.
I came to Edinburgh only on Wednesday evening, the eve of polling. Yesterday morning, polling day, I showed up at the Yes Scotland office in Newington, south central Edinburgh, a short distance from my guesthouse on Minto Street. Offering to help for a few hours, I soon found myself visiting tenement dwellings in the Newington district guided by Edinbugh university student David Kelly, a pleasant young man, SNP member and student of politics. He showed me the ropes as we called on people in the lists supplied to us as potential Yes voters, climbing dark narrow steps in three-storey buildings, checking whether the occupants had voted yet, and trying to get the Yes vote out. These impressive terraces in the Livingstone Place, Mellview Drive and Moncrieff Terrace areas, featured late 18th/early 19th century town houses of the upper classes, which were sub-divided into small dwellings. These were now occupied by couples, some families and a transient population of students. Back later to the Yes office to report our findings for later follow-up. In the afternoon of polling day a shorter session, following up part of the earlier list with a South African-residing Scotsman, Ken, his car festooned with yes posters, which he parked strategically for maximum impact. And in the late evening, a final check on the remnants of a different list, with Jack Martin of the Radical Independence Party, driving in the evening darkness in his car around the more salubrious Grange Lodge and Grange Terrace districts. By then, most people had voted- the remainder probably weren’t going to vote.
It was an exhilarating experience of activism which I hadn’t had since my student days in College in the 1980s, and I remembered popular culture on the radio in that era when politics had felt grittier, less subject to spin; the music of the Specials, UB40, the Style Council combining protests at Thatcherite materialism with chutzpah, sassy lyrics and an infectious beat. Just last Tuesday night, it had been a great experience to be in the company of other politically-engaged and enthusiastic people such as Trinity students Féilim MacRóibín and Jeff Johnston and others who mounted a display at the James Connolly statue in Dublin’s Beresford Place. This was a small gesture of support to the Yes campaign from an Ireland which (with a number of honourable exceptions such as journalists Colm Ó Broin and Concubhar Ó Liatháin, Irish language activist Caoimhín Ó Cadhla, economist David McWilliams and historian Diarmuid Ferriter) had largely slept through the two-years long debate, awakening only at the penultimate stage with low-level derivative commentary. We, a nation which had to fight a long and difficult campaign to secure our own independence, could and should have done more to offer an imaginative encouragement and support to our Scottish friends who were presented with a unique and almost unparalleled chance to secure it in a peaceful ballot. But like its metropolitan Westminster counterpart, who seem to represent the “gold standard” to which so many of our Irish journalists aspire, the Irish media class enjoys its comfortable ensconcement in the Kildare Street bubble, talking to each other, often conveying a dreary uniformity (even in criticisms of aspects of politics), and with little sense of an Ireland beyond the confines of the metropolis. Who can’t understand that loving Scotland and wishing it to join the community of nations in its own right does not mean- and never meant- hating England. Like Irish academia, it had little or nothing to offer Scotland in solidarity.
Where does all that grassroots energy and engagement tapped by the #YesScotland campaign go now? As an outsider, a few humble ideas occur, inspired by a few things I observed. On the voter-drive yesterday, Ken (the Scot home from South Africa) suggested the SNP should rebrand as Yes Scotland. But perhaps it should go beyond that, create a larger umbrella under that name, encompassing the Green Party and other non-SNP elements. Hugely impressive though he is, Alex Salmond (and nobody else could have brought matters this far) and the SNP are not universally liked, even on the Yes side (though the ugly caricatures by elements of the No campaign say more about it than they do about him). Progressives need to sustain the unique sense of national purpose and energy now existing through festivals, events and political discussion groups along Ireland’s Leviathan model, in every town in Scotland. Keep the grassroots engaged and keep that title which embodies positivity and hope. Create a fresh and inclusive social media platform building on disparate organisations such as YesLGBT, the Labour activists and members, the Greens, Women for Independence, student groups etc, which fused so many elements of society into a broad popular campaign that came within touching distance of history. And for all Ireland’s failure in this debate, take a lesson from our history. Take every inch of the devo-max settlement (when it comes, and come it must), and work it to the full. As deValera did with the Collins settlement he had eschewed in 1922. Keep the international engagement with a Scottish bureau in major international centres- all that is needed is an office, a PC an internet connection and people with a few hours to spare. Keep the international friends of independence engaged with Scotland’s development through contact and information, and show the world that the triumph of No did not mean the end of Yes. The world’s attention will move on, now that the bright light that flashed briefly on the world stage has dimmed again. But it is not the end of the dream. And Yes Scotland’s friends abroad still care.