Ireland's history looms large over the present. Source: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Ireland's history looms large over the present. Source: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

As Scotland is debating its future, Ireland is debating its past.

Last week, as a televised political debate over independence took center stage in Scotland, a row erupted over Ireland’s fight for independence almost 100 years ago. John Bruton, Ireland's former prime minister, called the bloody 1916 Easter Rising and war of independence that later followed “completely unnecessary,” arguing that Ireland could have achieved its independence without any casualties.

That sent Irish nationalists around the bend. Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, accused Bruton of “denigrating the sacrifice” made by the soldiers and their families. The grandson of Eamon de Valera, one of Ireland’s revolutionary leaders, blasted Bruton as “delusional.”

The debate is entirely academic, of course -- and both sides make valid points. But the fact that it is occurring speaks to a national political identity that is still trapped in the past.

In the late 19th century, there was no debate among major political leaders in the U.S. over whether our revolutionary war should have been fought. Perhaps -- as Bruton argued was true for Ireland -- America could have achieved independence through parliamentary means, as Canada eventually did. That would have saved lives in the 18th century and possibly led to an earlier abolition of slavery on more peaceful terms. But it also would have preempted the genius that gave rise to the U.S. Constitution and slowed America’s march to national greatness.

The fact that national origin questions are still being debated in Ireland underscores the incomplete nature of its revolution. Had an armed struggle freed all of Ireland, Bruton would never have called the 1916 uprising a "mistake.” But it didn’t. The line that divides the island’s largely Protestant north and largely Catholic south is a gash across the nation’s political soul that the peace process has helpfully scarred over. Part of the healing process has involved what might be called, to borrow an Irish-American's phrase, “benign neglect” of the question of unification, leaving Irish leaders to debate historical events.

Today, support for unification is weak. Many nationalist voters in Northern Ireland like being citizens of the U.K., not least the large number of those in government jobs. A poll last year found that only 13 percent of northern Catholics would vote for unification “as soon as possible.” (Scottish nationalists will almost surely do better than that.)

Meanwhile, many voters in the Irish Republic look north and see an economic albatross chained to a political tinderbox that comes with a huge security bill. And citizens on both sides of the Irish border are wisely leery of anything that would upset the hard-fought truce.

Two developments, however, could revive support for unification. First, if the vote for Scottish independence is stronger than expected, the voice of Irish nationalism will grow louder. Second, if Sinn Fein continues to gain in the polls, the next Irish government may court the north with promises of economic benefits -- although that would be a tough sell to voters in the Republic, even if the pace of its economic recovery picks up.

The Good Friday Agreement permits a referendum to be held in Northern Ireland on whether to remain part of the U.K. or join the Irish Republic. Such a referendum is unlikely to happen anytime soon; holding one in 2016, as nationalists had long hoped for, could undercut a still tenuous peace. But finding ways to begin a civil and inclusive dialogue about what steps ought to occur before any referendum is scheduled would be more productive than debating events that are a century old.

The squall over 1916 was prompted by Bruton’s belief that Ireland should be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1914 home rule bill passed by the British parliament with as much fanfare as the Easter Rising centennial. That will not happen. Instead, on Sept. 18, the date of the home rule anniversary, Irish eyes will be fixed on Scotland, where voters will go to the polls to determine their future.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor of this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.