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Scotland the brave, Ulster the unsure?

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Wednesday, 23 December 2009

There are moves afoot in Scotland for a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom to be held next year. The likelihood of the UK falling apart into ethnic warfare à la Yugoslavia or Soviet Union is unlikely should the Scots reclaim their freedom from London.

However, in the event the referendum is successful (there are signs it may have difficulty getting over the line) then what of the future of the UK, including for Wales and the highly explosive Northern Ireland, also known as Ulster? In addition, there will also be other European Union members, such as Spain with its own restless Basque and Catalan ethnic groups, watching nervously from the sidelines.

The whole concept of “Britishness” is now being called into question. Can you be British and Scottish at the same time?


Hollywood has in recent times played a major part in popularising Scottish independence. High profile Oscar winning actor Sir Sean Connery has thrown his political weight behind it. Mel Gibson’s 1995 blockbuster film Braveheart, full on romance and action and light on historical accuracy, about Scottish hero Sir William Wallace’s brave fight for freedom from the nasty English king, Edward I (The Longshanks) in the late 13th century no doubt has raised public consciousness.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) emerged in the early 18th century with Northern Ireland a later addition. It consists of four major ethnic groups: the English, descendants of northern German tribes known as Angles and Saxons, also related to the Vikings, who arrived in the 5th century AD; and the indigenous Celts: Scottish, Welsh and Irish. The Germanic and Celtic languages are not related to each other. Prior to the Anglo-Saxon invasion, the Romans ruled Britain for three centuries.

The term Britannia and British originally refers to the Celtic inhabitants of the UK and the Celtic Bretons in modern day France. England evolved from the term Angle-land.

By 1066 “francofied” German tribes, the Normans, invaded England and spread a light French veneer over the Angles and Saxons. By the 17th century English dominance spread to most of the “British Isles” including the adjoining island of the largely Catholic Celtic Ireland.

English and Anglicised Scottish Protestants, later dubbed Scots-Irish, were sent as colonisers of Ireland. A fact largely ignored by both modern Irish and Ulster Union nationalists is that some of these Scots-Irish joined the native Irish Catholics in the 1798 Irish Rebellion against the British Crown, which was brutally suppressed with the assistance of the native Irish Catholic Church.

By 1921, the War of Irish Independence led by Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins successfully resulted in an Irish Free State and later, the Republic of Ireland (Eire) in the south largely populated by Catholics and a Northern Ireland tied directly to Great Britain. Some of the early Irish Nationalists were neither Irish nor Catholic but passionately believed in the cause. Robert Erskine Childers, a British Naval Intelligence officer decorated for bravery during World War I, comes to mind.


Since that time, political violence has inflicted Ulster as Irish Nationalists have fought for a United Ireland and the Ulster nationalists to maintain the status quo and their privileges. In 1969 the British government intervened by sending in the army to diffuse tensions between the long suffering Irish Catholic minority at the hands of the Protestant majority. Later the Provisional Irish Republic Army (PIRA), an organisation branded as terrorist by London, took up the fight for a united Ireland. The conflict has largely been viewed as a sectarian one, despite the ethnic dimension to it. Various ceasefires and peace plans have come into effect and at the moment the province is relatively quiet with former enemies sharing power.

One of the underlying fears of the Ulster Protestants has been the thought of becoming a “persecuted” minority in a united Ireland, should it ever take place. But others point out that the Republic of Ireland is a modern democratic state and member of the European Union along with the United Kingdom.

Scotland, Wales (its proper Welsh name is Cymru) and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments but Westminster in London retains control over the purse strings, foreign policy and the armed forces. The Queen, Elizabeth II, is the monarch for all four countries. At the Olympic Games, Great Britain marches as one team. In the FIFA soccer world cup competition the four have their own teams. Watching the Scottish national team play at a World Cup is an incredible spectacle. Instead of hearing the British national anthem of God Save the Queen, usually a lone bagpiper plays the stirring tune, Scotland the Brave.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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