Credit: Katrina Williams

Thought Experiment: A Celtic Union

By Jamie Salem Dalgety

Imagine a world where Scotland and Ireland united…

As someone who’s from Northern Ireland, but grew up in Scotland, the concept of a Celtic Union has never been too far from my mind. Throughout debates surrounding both Scottish Independence and a United Ireland, I have generally sat on the fence. I was born to a Jewish mother in the centre of Belfast (the ultimate neutral stance you can take in tensions between Protestants and Catholics), and at various times in my life I have identified to varying degrees as Scottish, Irish, Northern Irish, and/or British. However, despite my primarily “apologist” views towards either side of both Irish and Scottish debates, there could be a quiet inevitability to the two campaigns’ successes. Repeated electoral success for the SNP combined with strong “Yes” vote polling numbers for the last two years could indicate the future of independence. The coming results of the 2021 Northern Ireland Census may show that the Catholic population has surpassed the Protestant population, all but triggering a referendum for unification. 

“Throughout debates surrounding both Scottish Independence and a United Ireland, I have generally sat on the fence.”

So, I pose to you the following thought experiment: were both Scottish Independence and a United Ireland to happen, what would it be like if the two banded together in this brave new world?

The concepts underlying a Celtic Union (sometimes referred to as Pan-Celticism) are not particularly new. Before the invasion of the Roman empire, much of Europe included historic groups that are retroactively considered Celtic. They spread from the Alps region, through to France and Spain, with a particular prominence in Britain and Ireland. Developing from this period of history, Pan-Celticism became a politicised concept from the late 18th century. Early on there were connections made by individuals and groups to create projects together. This came alongside the “Celtic Revival” which saw artistic movements harkening back to the Celtic period. During the early 1900s, there were three Pan-Celtic Congress’ organised by the Celtic Associations. Later on, there have been several further booms of Pan-Celticism spirit following the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, and during The Troubles. 

As large parts of England and Wales were also historically Celtic, some may wonder why these would not be included in a Celtic Union. There is both an obvious political argument, and a historical one. Politically, there is less tangible support for an independent Wales, and it feels fairly intuitive that a United Kingdom-heavy England would show disdain towards adopting their Celtic roots. The historical justification is a bit more interesting: there were two dominant insular Celtic languages in Iron Age Britain and Ireland. The first, which you are more likely to know, is Gaelic – which modernised to Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. The second were Brythonic languages which now include Welsh, Breton and Cornish. This clear separation of language, and of the culture derived from it, suggests that it may be more logical to propose a Celtic Union of Gaelic countries.

We don’t just share a history, either. There has long been an awareness of cultural similarities between the two places. We have both leaned heavily into our Celtic ancestry to form the roots of our modern day cultures. We both actively engage in folk dancing such as ceilidhs (or “Céilí  dances” in Ireland) and our traditional music has strong similarities too (it’s no coincidence that we both refer to violins as fiddles). The Irish even have their own type of bagpipes called the uilleann pipes. Think of all the jam sessions that could take place in our Celtic Union pubs… and speaking of pubs, we both love them. I mean, the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland all have similar levels of alcoholism, but the love for whiskey is definitely a characteristic unique to Scotland and Ireland.

“Think of all the jam sessions that could take place in our Celtic Union pubs…”

Our scenery of beautiful hills, glens, lochs, and loughs feel reminiscent in both places. Our surnames are built similarly too: last names prefixed by “O” in Ireland means you’re “of” the clan name that follows, just as “Mac” means “son of” in Scotland. But most of all, it’s the people. There is a certain type of attitude towards life that we all have. Whether people come to Scotland, Northern Ireland, or Ireland, we are all noted for our warmth. We perfectly balance the dichotomy of being a friendly people, with a cheeky smile making others feel welcome, whilst honing a certain self-deprecating darkness in our humour. There’s a reason that when I moved from Belfast to Perth at the age of five I felt as if I hadn’t even left home. So whether it’s our common use of language (I still can’t tell if “gaff” originated in Scotland or Ireland), or the way we live our lives, it doesn’t feel too hard to imagine being a common people.

“I still can’t tell if “gaff” originated in Scotland or Ireland”

What would the benefits and incentives be for the countries to form a new Celtic Union together, though? From a Scottish perspective, there is a glaringly obvious one: Scotland and Northern Ireland were both heavily in favour of remaining in the EU, and the Republic of Ireland (ROI) is already in the EU… you can join the dots. In reality, the expansion of including Scotland and Northern Ireland in the ROI’s EU membership would be endlessly complex. That being said, it would certainly help Scotland evade that pesky EU waitlist. 

A much more fun benefit would be the likely (literal) bridge built between the two islands. Sure, the UK government always suggests doing it anyway, but I think it would be much more entertaining to build one near the Giants’ Causeway linking to Scotland. There’s already a whole folktale (the story of Finn McCool) around this anyway, and think of the tourism money we’d make?! In all seriousness though, the expansion of each country’s economies through a new union is appealing, and convenient transport routes between Scotland and Ireland would be a must.

On a more earnest note, a point of consideration should be made for the people on the other side of both potential referendums. Neither Scottish Independence or the Unification of Ireland is likely to be won by a landslide (if they are successful at all), and in both scenarios it’s likely a fair amount of the population is going to feel pretty miffed. Whether it’s Northern Irish Protestants now feeling like a significant religious minority in a United Ireland, or British Unionists in both countries who feel unfairly severed from the United Kingdom, it’s impossible for someone to win without others to lose. It is here, though, where I think a Celtic Union between the countries could do some real good. Scotland has a much larger spread in religion than the Republic of Ireland does, and by combining the countries together it starts to look a lot more religiously diverse – which, in my opinion, can surely only be a good thing. Additionally, the common desire between Northern Irish and Scottish Unionists would probably get them a better seat at the negotiating table when it comes to the new relationship with the UK, and it’s probably in everyone’s best interests for that relationship to suit everyone – nobody wants to bear witness to a renewal of the violence that we know can come from political unrest.

At the end of the day this is all just a hypothetical. No-one knows how either referendum would turn out or if they would happen in the first place. Even if they did and a Celtic Union really was on the table, would Scotland really want to walk away from one union just to join another? As someone who still hasn’t taken a hard stance on either debate, I really couldn’t say… though, in my heart, as someone who has lived in, and has family from, both countries, a Celtic Union does sound just a wee bit fun. 


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Austen Lynch

I agree that the perceived binary choices facing NI (Westminster or Dublin) and Scotland (Westminster or Edinburgh) are increasingly likely to leave both parts of the UK in deadlock. Rethinking the future will need much more imaginative approaches to problem-solving.