It was 11.45pm on the night of 18 September and my family had gathered round the kitchen table in their home in the outskirts of Aberdeen to hear the results of the independence referendum. Presenter Huw Edwards was questioning Ruth Davidson MSP, Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party and prominent figure of the No campaign, on what she made from early counts of postal ballots. Her smile gave away the result of the referendum long before the final votes were counted, Scotland had voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The political carnival was over, the whisky was put back in the cupboard and my family headed to bed for a disappointedly early night.
Exactly two months later and I was on a ferry from Holyhead, Wales with four large suitcases containing my life’s belongings. Having left my student flat in London, I followed the path of 45 per cent of the Scottish electorate and said goodbye to the UK.
It was coincidental that my move from London to Dublin took place in the aftermath of the referendum result. Yet, living in Dublin for the past three months has brought into sharp focus the overlap between the referendum result and my own exit from the UK, and has made clear the opportunities that Scotland let pass.
Although an independent Scotland would bring great structural change and signal the end of the UK, for many in the middle classes the everyday nature of life may have changed very little. Should I wish to replicate my London life in Dublin, I could without much difficulty: waking up to BBC Radio 4’s Today, grabbing a morning coffee at Starbucks, researching in an internationally reputable university library, buying milk from Lidls on the way home (or Marks & Spencer, if I am feeling flush), then watching BBC One’s The Graham Norton Show before bed.
Even major differences, like shifting from pounds to euros or the Irish language on public transport, took only a few weeks of readjustment. I now look back in anger at the No campaign’s success in spreading fear about the disruptive nature of change as my life in Dublin has revealed that small nations are not wastelands of opportunity. In fact, Dublin offers more options than Scotland – as it brings together products and services from Ireland, the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. The dystopian horrors projected upon an independent Scotland are even harder to believe: differences exist and some aspects of life are better while some are worse, but the situation is certainly not nightmarish.
How I see Ireland is shaped by events in Scotland in 2014, and how close a nation came to following its own path to independence. I find myself frequently comparing Dublin to Glasgow and Edinburgh, as its population sits between the two. Ireland is also in the midst of its own referendum campaign over the legalisation of civil marriage for same-sex couples. Whenever I spot a lapel carrying a ‘Yes’ badge, or its rough Irish equivalent ‘Tá’, I feel hopeful for Ireland yet overwhelmed by the feeling – ‘we could have done it’.
Yet there is something different about the situation in Ireland.
Every weekend a gathering of protestors departs the Central Bank on the south side of the river Liffey to march towards the General Post Office, the scene of the 1916 Easter Rising, in opposition to the introduction of water charges. The city has also been brought to a standstill several times in recent months, as a mass movement of people filled the streets. Whether or not these protests will succeed in their goal, the target of their message is clear.
Although people continue to point the finger of blame at others (rather than Westminster, the ruling coalition of Fine Gael and Labour or troika of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund receive most criticism), resolutions to this anger seem more closely held in the hands of the Irish people.
Looking back on September 2014 from across the Irish Sea, I wonder what the independence referendum planted in the hearts and minds of all involved, particularly among young people. People were not only talking politics but – for the first time – many people shared their opinions on the form of a future society, evoking emotions and passions never previously experienced. I doubt these feelings will lie latent for long.
An independent Scotland would face a rocky road, just as Ireland’s past decade has been a story of highs and lows: the paw prints of the Celtic Tiger continue to haunt a country in which unemployment and housing loom problematically. But it has survived and no difficulties are yet to emerge that do not have answers. An independent Scotland was never going to be an overnight success story; it was always the start, rather than the end, of a long project. For those questioning whether they put their ‘x’ in the right box on September 18, a quick flight over the Irish Sea will show that independence for Scotland was an opportunity missed.
Kevin Guyan is a Dublin-based researcher, engager and PhD student in postwar British history at University College London. He tweets at @the_deluxe.