Strange that having written about Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole last week I should find myself listening to him giving the Arbuthnott Lecture in Edinburgh University this evening.
Ireland is entering a season of commemorations – beginning with the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916. What Fintan O’Toole suggested was that, even though this was a violent entry into what became Irish independence, the level of continuity with the past was considerable. Most obviously, civil service administration was carried across almost wholesale – as was the corpus of law, etc. The implication for Scotland was that, should independence come, there would be a much higher level of continuity than many might expect.
A member of the audience asked the standard ‘What if?’ question of Irish history. And there is a considerable amount of revisionism going on in the same vein in Ireland. The third Home Rule Bill had been passed, although its implementation had been delayed because of the First World War. The argument goes that the Easter Rising was an opportunistic pre-emptying of the situation. Could we have avoided Irish Partition, the Irish Civil War and nearly a century of recurring violence which followed? Would a single Irish state have avoided the ‘mirror image’ limitations which shaped the two states of a partitioned Ireland? And the answer to the ‘what if?’ has to lie with the other reality – of the Ulster loyalists signing the Covenant in their blood. Division was probably unavoidable.