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The Groundsman’s Story

July 25, 2016


I’m sitting on a chair on a sloping area; it’s a grassy mound now – at one time it was terraced tarmac.

Behind me is the scorebox, still the same outward shape, but electrified since my time. There were two things you had to remember here in the 1960s when you had ambitions of being a scorer: the screws on the right hand winding mechanism were loose, so the handles were very difficult to turn, and, whatever you did, you should never put up 13 for A.D. Bunting – leave it at 12 and then move on to 14 – otherwise, if he was out, he was liable to come charging round the boundary to remonstrate.

You had to climb a rickety ladder to the number winding area; below you was the scorer’s seat in front of the big open windows, at a sloping wooden desk the style of which would have been familiar to Bob Cratchit.

Eventually I made it to scorer for the Sunday X1, fascinated by the dots, the crosses, and the responsibility, and the chance to be part of it all, not to mention the two shillings and the free tea.

It’s a great view from here at third man, especially since I’ve graduated from sitting on the grass at the boundary, to a spot half way up the slope. I’m surrounded by (mostly) men of a certain age, in a selection of sports and casual wear, with rucksacks and holdalls, battered by years of use, containing receptacles for sandwiches, cans of beer, cameras, spectacles, sunglasses, floppy hats, outmoded transistor radios, mobile phones, and notes from their better halves imploring them: “Don’t forget to….”

The talk is easy and desultory – about cricket, politics, family life and the old days. Like me, most of these guys sat next to these same folk fifty years ago at school. A contented air floats over the rows of seats.

The field looks great – lush from a rainy summer, and for all their modern, polyestered, numbered styles, the whites of the players against the green of the surface is restful on the eye.

I love this place.

From here I can watch my childhood.

The pavilion on the far side is long and low: I was at its opening in 1965, a young boy, hovering at the edge of the membership, as I did for most of my time here, impressed by the bar, the snooker room, the committee room, and the changing rooms. The old pavilion had been wooden and 19th century, but this was a modern marvel. I would eventually change in those dressing rooms and sit on the balcony, seeking nonchalance before going out to bat – but I’d never look as relaxed as the many Test stars who would eventually change there, not when I think of Rohan Kanhai fast asleep before going out to face Statham, Lever and Higgs.

Just to the right is where, at my first ever cricket match, Geoff Pullar smilingly signed his autograph and set me off on a lifetime of devotion to the game. In the bar was the spot where I approached Ted Dexter for an autograph, only to be shooed away by the Club Chairman, and recalled by Lord Ted, who signed happily. And there’s the beer taps where they poured pints of the best cold shandy after net practice – never bettered anywhere.

Away to the right is what used to be the Ladies Pavilion – with big hats and mysterious cocktails, and then the indoor cricket school which used to be the tea room. I was pulled up by the local police one Friday night when running to winter nets in the snow. When I told them I was “going to play cricket” they nearly arrested me.

The tea room, and the groundsman’s hut behind, were the site of my cricket education.

As an eleven year old I met the groundsman, Peter Dury. He was a lovely man, and patiently put up with a few of us haunting the ground every day in the school holidays, winter and summer, following him around, and asking questions. We got to “assist” him, carrying around his apparatus; we got rides on the heavy roller and helped him mow the square. We got to know Brian Robertson, his assistant, as well. At 11 o’clock we would all go and have a cup of tea with Peter in the tearoom kitchen, and, sitting round the old battered table, he’d share his sandwiches and cricket knowledge, and, without realising it, we would all be drawn into that hinterland of knowledge and tradition which makes cricket such a wonderful game.

Sometimes we played French cricket, with local rules, on the concrete hardstanding in front of his hut: if the ball went into the shed – with its wonderful aroma of grass cuttings, creosote and diesel – it was out, as was a hit into the upturned seat of the motor mower.

Peter had been on the books at Notts CCC and often played on Sundays. He got a century against Jabisco (Jacobs Biscuits Factory team) one week, and we cheered ourselves silly when he came out between innings to brush the wicket!

Great success came his way – as head of Playing Fields at Nottingham, and as an advisor for many football clubs and the ECB. Though devoted to his grass pitches, he was also instrumental in the development of Astroturf to performance level. He was a good guy who reached the top of his profession.

He had integrity, expertise, and knowledge – but most importantly for we youngsters, his love of cricket set us up for a life of engagement and enjoyment of the summer game. He was a kindly and wise, an inspirational figure in his own way, with no side to him, and a willingness to withstand our childish inquisitiveness and persistence.

Nowadays, of course, health and safety and child protection regulations would make such an introduction to the game well nigh impossible. I’m just glad I was lucky enough to spend time with him and develop an understanding of the game and a lifelong respect for groundsmen. I owe him that love of cricket

So, last weekend, sitting on that slope, at Southport and Birkdale CC, with my childhood memories before me, my school pals next to me, and Lancashire playing Durham out on the ground, I was in cricket paradise, remembering 1962, and thinking of Peter Dury.


Horrible rotten objects.

June 30, 2016

Twenty years ago, we were on holiday at a campsite in French Catalonia, a few miles east of Perpignan. Our son was 8 years old, and the site was to become our summer “home from home” for most of his childhood.

The site was well run, family friendly, and in an attractive situation near the beach. However, its major attraction was that it was multinational. We used to leave as soon as the school holidays started and were usually there by the end of June. That meant we shared the site with the French, Germans, Irish, Dutch, Danes and Belgians.

Despite the relaxed nature of the place, there was a kind of routine to the day – especially once folk left the swimming pool around 4pm.

You were liable to be invited to join others for an aperitif between 5 and 6pm. This involved much attempted deployment of language skills, and a bewildering and intoxicating, selection of drinks. We would take whisky, the French pastis or kir, the Germans Schnapps, and so on. They could prove a heady mix after a day in the sun!

In the hour before that, the dads, boys, and a few girls, got into the habit of congregating in a large field at the edge of the site to play football. In later years, the camp site built a more than respectable five a side pitch with Astroturf, but I always thought these games with unlimited numbers on each side, children and dads pitched against each other, on the long grass of the meadow, were somehow perfect.

Sometimes we managed to chat, pidgin-wise, as few of us were fluent; mostly, the international language of football took over. As I drove down through France, I always looked forward to these games and to the friends from around Europe whom we would meet each year.

This particular year, on the second evening of our stay, the game was especially enjoyable. A cooling breeze was sneaking down from the Pyrenees, the grass was not long cut and still gave off that amazing summer smell. The aroma of cooking floated over from the tents and mobile homes, the sky was steely blue, butterflies sought to avoid our trampling feet, there was birdsong in the surrounding trees, and swifts swooping overhead.

Of course, for a dad, there’s nothing quite like playing football with your son, or daughter, and there were many happy faces around me. I took my turn in goal and looked about to take in the scene. It was the kind of game where you really want to win, but the pure joy comes from just being part of it. Dads slid into ill advised tackles, six year olds nutmegged fifteen year olds, ten year old girls played with a determination to better their brothers.

The sounds were of laughter, cheerful and urgent shouting, and in a mix of languages.

I suddenly realised the date – it was July 1st.

Eighty years before, on this day, had been the start of the Battle of the Somme. By this time in the afternoon, over 20,000 lay dead – and they came from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, from Germany, Canada and many other countries, many of them were no more than ten years older than the children playing here, and the others were Dads or brothers, like the rest of our gang, or had left behind sisters, like our determined female footballers.

The thought was like a splash of cold water on my hot cheeks. It was hard to think of such carnage in such a beautiful setting, but then, before the Great War, the Somme had been simply a river meandering through bucolic countryside for most of its length.

There was a shiver, as if a cloud had passed over the sun, even though the sky was perfectly blue – but then I was alerted to an attack, and had to look sharp to save a goal. When my son said, “Well saved, Dad,” it felt, somehow, extra special.

I looked at our German friends – Berndt and Nico, at Alain and his boys Sylvain and Romain, from near Rouen, at the shy Belgians who had arrived that day, at the Danish family, and the two skilful Dutch boys, and I felt an immense relief that my birthdate meant we were playing football together, enjoying each others’ company, exchanging drinks and half strangling our languages, rather than facing each other across No Man’s Land.

It was the lottery of chronology.

I don’t know if anyone else paused to reflect on the date, and it didn’t seem right to mention it, but I did feel an extra joy in our session later, as we sat around, exhausted, with our aperitifs, and tried to tell our wives how brilliant we had been.

It felt so good to be part of this gathering – where our different nationalities were a cause for interest, an exchange of ideas, some new empathies. I couldn’t help reflect on how lucky I was, how lucky we all were, to live in times of neighbourliness, cooperation, and mutual respect and understanding.

Of course we were different, and had varying attitudes, but, in a sense, at national and individual level, that made for a more interesting and rewarding friendship, a chance, in the relaxation of holiday time, to look behind the stereotypes, to put names to faces, give voices to strangers.

On that July day in Argeles sur Mer, it felt like our diversity was our strength, our countries were our admission to this international gathering, the future saved from the foolishness of aggression and war.

In the cool of the evening, it seemed unthinkable we would ever return to the politics of envy and greed, to be faced with unscrupulous politicians quite prepared to lie openly in pursuit of their ambitions, and to a society where people were abused in the street because they appeared in some way “different”. Looking around my European friends, I took comfort from the fact that, rationally, we had learned from two wars, and we were moving forward as a continent, together and as partners.

I have also been to the Somme.

It is peaceful now, at least in appearance. In many areas, farmers’ barns replace pill boxes and redoubts. There are rebuilt villages, and small towns, with half familiar trading estates on their approaches – all corrugated plastic and high visibility signage. In places, new autoroutes make their unnatural way across the landscape.

But I’ve also stood in the fields around Gommecourt, where, on July 1st 1916, practically the whole strength of the London Rifle Brigade was wiped out before noon – in what they would never know was merely a “diversionary” attack. Two weeks later, my uncle would arrive in France, and be transferred into the Brigade, with large numbers of his Post Office Rifles colleagues – because there were hardly any left from  the original battalion.

I have driven the long straight country roads through flat fields, where the dark shadows of the trenches can still be seen through the crops if you know where to look, and where it seems that milestones are replaced by the stark white tablets in row upon row in military cemeteries.

In the evenings, you will hear birdsong – though, in the distance it may be confused with the reversing beeps of a small town refuse lorry. You may breathe in the scent of the cooling air in the sun setting over the earth – though it will never quite overwhelm the smell of fear from thousands of young men – whose grandchildren would never exist to share the desks in your classroom.

And, when your emotions get the better of you, that thumping in your heart, as you well up at the thought of all those life stories lost, will never quite manage to drown out the thunder of the great guns as they hurled youth into oblivion from distant ridges.

At the foot of each concrete telephone pole are small piles of metal – these are the Great War shells, still uncovered in the fields by farmers on a daily basis, and left here for collection. The army comes around each morning to take them away to be detonated.

A young soldier says, in perfect English:

“You think this war ended in 1918 – but it didn’t. It still goes on for us every day – as long as these horrible, rotten objects emerge from under the ground“

And then I think of the Leave Campaign. I think of all those politicians who see proof of national “greatness” in battle, who tell us we were “at our best” in wartime, who sell weaponry and stir conflict in an attempt to gain some kind of international status, who use their limited intellect to encourage abuse of anyone or anything “different”, who scrape for votes in the soulless lives of those whose world they have systematically destroyed in the pursuit of profit.

And I think of how, playing football with families of many nations in that field below the Pyrenees, I was naïve enough to believe my son would be able to spend his life in the exciting potential of a friendly and cooperative Europe, in a state which welcomed the enrichment which is brought by the diversity provided by immigration.

And I think of all those young men who never left these fields, a hundred years ago: and I could weep.

In fact, I often do.

Two blue flags

June 24, 2016


Woke up after 4 hours sleep. Hesitated to switch on phone, dreading the worst. Tears rolling down my cheeks. Sadness? Yes. Anger? Certainly.

The people who told lies to keep Scotland in the UK have told lies to get the UK out of EU. Every week since the IndyRef vote, another decision has proved Yes right and No wrong. This is the biggest proof – but it’s impossible to take any pleasure from that.

There will be thousands of No voters feeling foolish this morning, those who support an Independent Scotland should not be adding to their misery. The people have spoken loud and clear. Democracy has ceased to exist in a UK State. Scotland is European from top to bottom, on left and right.

There is huge responsibility on our First Minister to negotiate Scotland’s place in Europe. But this is far far beyond petty party politics. She also needs the political bravery of the other party leaders so the EU can hear a united Scottish voice, from all parties, saying:


No party point scoring, no recriminations, no backsliding on positions. Simply a set of politicians of all parties with the guts to say. “We hear the people and we will act on their wishes”. And a media to support that line – whatever their owners say.
We need to save democracy and we need to do that under two blue flags.

Still high, still reflecting.

May 27, 2016

(I’d like to respectfully dedicate this piece to John Doolan, and his late Dad,  – members of the Hibs Family.)


It was four days since Hibs’ historic Cup win – and I was still high!

No, really, I was!

Liberton’s Mount Vernon cemetery is one of the highest points in the city and boasts a wonderful panoramic view down to Arthur’s Seat and the city’s Southside. Wednesday was my Dad’s anniversary and that of my Uncle Joe. It was also, coincidentally, the birthday of the late, great Gordon Smith

Uncle Joe died on May 25th 1923, never having fully recovered from being a wounded Prisoner of War in 1918; my dad died on this day in 1957, when I was five, but not before he and my Uncle James, who played for Hibs in the 1920s. had taken me to my first Hibs game – the only time I ever saw “The Gay Gordon” playing. When my Mum died in 2004, the family couldn’t help but note how happy she would have been that her death notice in the Evening News was in the same column as that of Gordon Smith.

The family lived as part of the Edinburgh Irish community on the Southside, my granddad running a grocer’s shop in Buccleuch St.

Such are the connections – in family, history, and geography – that come effortlessly to mind on a visit to Mount Vernon.

I’ve never found this cemetery depressing or sorrowful, and I have been coming here as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s to do with belief in the afterlife or having a faith, but, while I mourn and miss those friends and relatives who are here, the place also brings a deep awareness of history, continuity, and context.

My parents are here, my grandparents, and my great grandmother; uncles and close family, and schoolfriends of them all. Having taught in an Edinburgh school for nearly two decades, I recognise families, parents I supported, and, sometimes and sadly, pupils I taught.

There’s Isobell, the woman who introduced my mum and dad – so I guess she’s the reason I am here at all; there’s Mary Angela, the wife of a pal, there’s Charlie – one time Hibs Director and a footballing mate; there’s Monica whom I taught alongside; Harry and Nellie, and their daughter Joyce – the same age as me but died so young – a family whose connections with mine go back to Gifford Park on the Southside in the 1900s.

When I go to my mum and dad’s grave I can recall the many times my Mum and I were here through the forty odd years between his death and hers, and, at my grandad’s, I can know that my dad and his brothers will have spent time here through the years, and that I am literally walking in their footsteps.

Grandad and Grandma’s family’s grave tells some of the story – from Drumkeerin, Co Leitrim, and Uncle James – a Hibs player and then a Franciscan priest. Ten yards away, unmarked, and only recently discovered, is Biddy, my great grandmother, who came over to Edinburgh when widowed. She is buried with one of her sons, Thomas, who died at 35, and one of his sons who succumbed to the flu aged only 18. It’s a reminder of the hard lives our ancestors sometimes had to endure.

Not so far away is Michael Whelahan – Hibs founder and first captain – ancestor of more modern hero Pat Stanton. There are various names I pass who have loomed large in family folklore, even though I could never have known them – tales and catchphrases that even now I pass on to my son – these memories of people who lived long before he can remember.

We joke that going to Mount Vernon with me is like going on some kind of guided tour – with a reference there, a memory here, anecdotes from another century, the words of people long gone – given voice again.

I suppose it’s about establishing who we are, where we come from, and celebrating our existence. One day this may be where we are as well – but we’ll be in good company, having travelled a familiar road.

Some people find cemeteries debilitating – a morbid reminder of our own mortality, or of the pain of bereavement and loss. It is true that these big issues affect people in different ways, and you would see a fair number of haunted faces and grief stricken families at Mount Vernon, particularly at graves whose inscriptions tell of folk taken tragically young.

So, I would not claim to be “cheerful” in this cemetery, a better word would be “affirmed” – it helps me know who I am, and, of course, I always seek to be respectful to people for whom the visit is a burden or a trial. The fact remains that visiting Mount Vernon is, for me at any rate, a practical and physical equivalent to genealogical studies or local history research.

To read the gravestones is to understand human diversity: the inscriptions range from tragic to comic, poetic to prosaic. There are those who have lived to see their children’s children’s children, and those who have been taken inexplicably and heartbreakingly young. The surnames originate in Scotland, England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and further afield. There are those who have died in battle, and those whose lives were lost in some irrationally instigated accident. All are here together and I am always tempted to think – in the midst of death, here are we in life.

Which raises the question – is this blog about life, death, history, family or Hibs? The answer is: I don’t really know. That in itself gives a clue.

An event like Hibs’ Cup win – 114 years in the making – focuses on what is important to people.

Polemicist Gerry Hassan has written a piece this week asking: “Why does football matter so much in Scotland?” He covers well worn areas such as the economic and political context, the history of immigration, tribalism, and the post industrial gloom of west central Scotland. He suggests, quite rightly, that to label the Old Firm rivalry as nothing more than “sectarianism” is to miss the complexities of the situation.

I think, for some people, football is far too important in their lives – it fills an emotional and spiritual vacuum which should be ameliorated by far healthier, outward looking, and empathetic approaches to the world in which we find ourselves.

A certain version of the stereotypical west of Scotland male can only demonstrate open emotion towards his football team, rather than his loved ones, is delusional to the point that he thinks his team is favoured by Pope or Queen, and has a low level of self esteem, displayed by his lifestyle and health regime. He is often reduced to proving his worth by abusing or attacking others. That is a stereotype, but not an unfamiliar story to those who live with the consequences of such displacement. And for many, football is central to such behaviour.

So, yes, football is far too important in Scotland. It is a game, nothing more. It should never be used as an excuse to inflict violence – physical or mental, nor should it come to be the whole definition of an individual, nor should it label whole sections of the community.

However, that is not to say football is not important, or that it cannot be a positive force in society.

Up at Mount Vernon on Wednesday, there were gravestones with Hibs scarves tied around them. Over the past few days we have heard tales of drams of whisky being poured on to graves in celebration of the Cup coming home to Easter Rd. I’m not ashamed to admit that, in the aftermath of the post match party on Saturday night, I found myself shouting over the wall of the Eastern cemetery, in the general direction of the grave of Dan McMichael, the Irishman who last managed Hibs to a Cup victory: “We’ve done it at last, Dan – we’ve won it again!”

For many, like me up at the cemetery, in Hampden Park itself, or in their own homes, Hibs’ victory will have brought to mind thousands of happy memories – of times spent with loved ones, of conversations and dreams shared, of inhabiting the same space – mental and physical – as long loved and lost fathers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters and parents, neighbours and friends.

When communication was difficult, it might have been the shared love of Hibs, the joint understanding of what it meant to each other when the boys in green and white achieved a famous victory, that maintained the relationship. Folk are not always aware of the traits passed on from generation to generation – but often they can see it in the colour of a scarf, or feel it in the warmth of an embrace after a vital goal, or hear it in the oft repeated Saturday night conversations.

Well over a hundred thousand people were on the streets of Edinburgh on Sunday to see the team bring home the Cup. I wonder if there has been such a general outpouring of community spirit in Leith since it was annexed by Edinburgh? In the windows of the tenements of Leith Walk were faces of all ages and backgrounds. The pride in their local team reflecting their feeling of community, and, in many cases, their personal histories.

There were old women in their eighties hearing the faint echo of their Dad arriving home with the Pink News on a Saturday night in the forties and fifties, couples reminiscing on how a result from the football disrupted their wedding reception long ago, decades of family history often lit up by the glare of floodlights in the sky over the stadium, the players whose names became household regulars, the times when a hero was met, the joy of a youngster when the team had won, and the need for consolation when the result had gone the wrong way.

Your football team has a habit of finding its way into the minutiae of every day family life; like a poker on the hearth: it may not have been the most important thing in the room, but it was always there, and it appears in every memory.

It was an absolute privilege to have the opportunity on Saturday night to thank the players and coaching staff who made history. It was a joy to see how they were starting to realise the impact of what they had achieved on so many people, for so many reasons.

In some ways, it is no more than victory in a sporting fixture; in other ways, it is an affirmation of family history, a rejuvenation of community, a reminder that, at its best, football can generate a joy which, even if temporarily, can transcend many of the heartaches of every day life.

My family and Hibs?

In Edinburgh, we go back 120 years, and I’m proud of them both.

But never more so than on Saturday May 21st 2016.

From all the McPartlins through the years, thank you, Hibs!

Putting a name on it

April 5, 2016

Hello! My name is Seán – and I was a “named person” for nearly forty years.

It shouldn’t feel like it, but some of the ill-informed reaction to the Scottish Government’s proposal for a “named person” to safeguard young people seems to suggest that anyone favouring the idea should admit to that position only apologetically.

However, I have no intention of contributing to the frequent and depressing aggression which can characterise Scottish political discussion online, but I would like to offer information from experience which might clarify how such a programme can work in reality.

The assumption of those who seem alarmed by the prospect appears to suggest that a “named person” will be, de facto, a “state snooper”, eyeing young people and their families with suspicion at every turn, seeking to uncover family secrets.

This is a familiar fear to me.

When I stated that I was a “named person” for nearly forty years, I was referring, initially to my career as a guidance teacher, which commenced in 1976, just eight years after the far seeing Scottish Education Department paper which proposed a guidance system was issued in 1968.

My introduction to guidance, then, came after approximately a school generation of pupils had been part of such a system. Colleagues reported that, at the start of the guidance structure, the cry from some parents and outsiders was that this was unwarranted interference in family affairs and an insult to the integrity of the family unit.

However, by the time I was in post, when parents and schools had had some time to experience the scheme in action, the reaction was rather different. The record showed that the best of Guidance in Scottish schools provided a support to children and families when they most needed it – whether it be related to academic progress, or the elements outside of school life which can hugely affect a young person’s development and well being.

In my career as a guidance teacher, my pupil caseload varied from 60 to 200 – and eventually, as a depute head in charge of guidance throughout the school, I had ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of around 1200 pupils

With the numbers of pupils for which guidance teachers had responsibility, the notion of “spying” or “snooping” was laughable. The original guidance remit was defined as the need for every pupil to know “there is one teacher who knows them well”. In practice, this eventually meant guidance staff receiving extra training so that they could be alert to anything which might suggest a child’s wellbeing was being compromised in some way – and this could refer to academic progress or to health, social or emotional concerns.

Realistically, with over a hundred pupils to support, this generally meant that the signs had to be quite blatant: situations where staff would not need to go ‘snooping” to have cause for concern.

It is also worth noting that, in my first register class of 28 pupils, only three came from single parent families. In my final years of teaching, it was not uncommon for more than half the pupils in any group to come from single parent or “remodelled” families.

As the child of a widow who lost my father when I was 5 years old, I was always well aware of the added sense of responsibility felt by a parent bringing up a child alone or in changed or challenging circumstances, and their appreciation of support or affirmation from neutral sources outwith the family. This is not a prejudgement of single parent families but rather an appreciation that the logisitics of safeguarding a child where there is only one carer, or where new family arrangements are in place, are sometimes, though not always, more challenging than in a nuclear family.

Good guidance staff had the trust of pupils, colleagues, and parents, and would therefore be in a position to assess the situation and offer whatever support was appropriate. It was a question of working together in the best interests of the child. “Guidance” was not something which was “done” to a child or family, it was a structure of support when needed – and accepted.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned by a guidance teacher – and this will also apply to “named persons” – is to listen to the young person. I sometimes worked with children whose home circumstances suggested a level of intervention by appropriate agencies would be helpful and positive. Not infrequently, these pupils let me know, in various ways, but very clearly, that as far as they were concerned, my operating in their “best interests” would be to treat them “like every other pupil”. In other words, their only chance of any “normality” was in school – and over zealous or hasty intervention might take that way from them, no matter how well intentioned or seemingly “necessary”. Safeguarding a child can very often mean “being aware” rather than “taking action”.

In mid-career, I was trained in the use of Child Protection Guidelines, and I then became a trainer myself. Although I am recalling the early 1990s, it is not hard to remember some of the initial reaction when we suggested up to one in ten children might have been exposed to emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Many found themselves unable or unwilling to believe this possibility – which, as we now know in hindsight – gave abusers the strongest possible cover for their activities.

For those of us who had worked in Guidance for over a decade, this new training and awareness, provided us with an image of pupils and families, going back to the start of our careers, whom we now realised had been asking for help, but in times when we had neither the understanding nor knowledge to respond. We learned how abusers target the vulnerable, those with least ability to reject them or report them. Often this was in obvious situations: for many years, children who communicated using sign language would, quite literally, have no means of telling of their abuse, leading to perpetrators targeting work in such settings as a means of access to victims. Less obviously, many young people – through lack of vocabulary or articulacy, or through embarrassment, as well as out of fear of the perpetrator, found it impossible to share what was happening to them.

When “named persons” for child protection were appointed in schools, when Personal and Social Education programmes made it clear to staff, parents and pupils who these people were, and where trust had been established through a professional and caring approach to pupil support, it became easier to share concerns – for all members of the school community. It was understood that there was a member of staff who would not be “shocked” by a disclosure of abuse, and who would be trained in how to deal with it; the awful feeling of isolation from which victims often suffered was eased by the knowledge that others must have undergone similar experiences.

This, in turn, led to pupils being more comfortable in speaking to staff, staff finding it easier to consult with the “named person”, and expertise and training being used appropriately to assess the situation and plan joint action if it was needed.

Being “named person” for child protection was easily the most stressful part of my long career as a teacher and management team member in schools. It was an area of the job where one was aware one had to get it right. I always appreciated the care, support and concern of colleagues in school and in in other agencies, and I always felt the responsibility was well worth carrying if it was in the best interest of the pupils and if it took some of the burden off my colleagues. It was also an area of working and caring which multiplied my already high respect for the strength of families and their mutual love and resilience. As with all education, as a teacher, you were working best when you were also learning.

For those whose concern overt the Named Person Bill can be reduced to “Quis custodiet, ipsos custodes?”, I think it is crucial that joint working between agencies in support of the structure, as is intended, acts as a double check on all decisions and actions. The opinion of one named person alone may be enough to instigate initial inquiries, but the opinion of one person should never be final in determining onward decisions.

As report after report shows us, unless agencies work together, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust, children will be failed. My own experience suggested that, irrespective of political and management declarations, establishing effective joint working called for huge commitment, teamworking and endeavour from all the professionals on the frontline – and this, too, will be needed from all those who are named persons. The fact that this has been sometimes difficult to achieve in the past cannot be used as an excuse to leave our most vulnerable young people open to abuse of any kind. As the Children Scotland Act reminded us – professionals at all times must act “in the best interests of the child” – this is not an aspiration, this is a contractual requirement.

So I have suggested that named persons will not be “snoopers”, but they will be people who know the children well enough to be “aware” if they, or their families, need additional support.

However, in a sense, this is replying to an agenda set by those who oppose the Bill. My own reaction to the proposals, when first I heard them, came from a diametrically opposed direction.

The most angry and combative group of parents I worked with as a teacher, guidance teacher, and school manager, were those who had children with additional needs. Often their approach to the school would be aggressive from the start and, at first, I would wonder why this was. When we gained their trust and they saw that we were focused on supporting their child to full potential, they would often share their frustrations. They tended to approach the authorities in an aggressive frame of mind because, often since the child’s birth, experience had taught them how hard it was to access even their child’s basic rights, never mind the additional support that could make such a positive difference. Their default position had become: “if we don’t fight for this, we won’t get it.”

Often they had been worn down by being passed from agency to agency, from official to official – and these were the folk who were more or less “bureaucracy-savvy”.

I’m not sure that those who have not experienced the struggle for support can recognise how monolithic and impenetrable “authority” can seem to those without self confidence or articulacy in their armour. Sadly, many simply “give up”, defeated by years of not knowing who to talk to or how to talk to them to make progress in support of their child.

So my prime understanding of the Named Persons Bill is to give a voice to those folk – those in need of support or access to power, those too shy or embarrassed or frightened to speak to a family member, those who need to share a concern or a problem with somebody outwith their immediate circle.

It is a chance for everybody – and none of us can predict when support might be needed – to know that if they have a concern or a worry, if they want to share something or ask for help, there is somebody who is tasked with being there for them, somebody, if you like, who can be held to account for the state’s duty to all its citizens, somebody who knows how the system works and is in a position to make it work for the person who most needs its support.

In short, it is the government saying: if we are not carrying out our duty of protection – through this person you can hold us to account.

There are, of course, those, and you’ll find it a common view in the USA, who think state accountability for its citizens is pernicious, an unwarranted interference, a sign of “the nanny state”. They are unlikely to accept this Bill and will continue to insist that we are all responsible for our own wellbeing. That is their right, but I prefer a model where we take responsibility for each others’ wellbeing, where the common good er trumps the desire for personal advancement.

Thankfully, in Scotland, despite the social challenges we face, the chances are that the vast majority of young people will not have cause to contact their `named person’ – it will just be a name on an official form.

However, as part of that majority, I think it is our duty to care for the minority who need our support.

That is my view, based on nearly 40 years of working with young people, and having responsibility for many of the most vulnerable.

And I will be perfectly happy to have somebody “named” who is accountable for ensuring the support of the many who can, is given to the few who cannot.

A bar or two of the Hallelujah Chorus.

April 1, 2016

Just to the west of Dublin’s city centre, between Stoneybatter, Smithfield, and the green expanses of the Phoenix Park, is an area known as Arbour Hill.

It is composed largely of narrow streets of terraced houses, and is separated from the Liffey quays to the south by the former Collins military Barracks, which is now part of the National Museum of Ireland.

In a quiet street behind the barracks, dating from mid nineteenth century, are a line of grey stone buildings, composing a former military prison and an ornate church with a round tower. This is now the Irish Defence Forces Chaplaincy Church.

Behind the church, is a cemetery, with weathered gravestones and many indecipherable epitaphs. From the few legible inscriptions, it becomes clear that this was a burial ground for the men and families of the adjacent barracks in Victorian times, under British rule.

As so often the case in cemeteries which are no longer used, there is an air of calm. In fact, it is more like a park than a burial ground, and locals come here to walk their dogs, or read, or have a quick lunch in the peaceful surroundings.

This is despite two unexpected additions to the surroundings.

Alongside the back of the church juts out a high modern wall with a watchtower placed in its angle, some thirty feet above the ground, its creamy concrete and reinforced glass windows a harsh contrast to the uniform grey of the other buildings. It is a severe reminder that beyond the peace of the cemetery lies a still functioning prison.

Beyond this, on a terrace raised up two or three steps above its surroundings, is a long grassy rectangle surrounded by granite sets. This is on the site of the former prison yard; on the sets are written, in English and Irish, the names of the 14 Leaders of 1916 who were buried here, in a mass grave under quicklime, after their executions at Kilmainham Jail. Behind the rectangle a white wall curves round gently, with the words of the 1916 Proclamation – again in Irish and English – inscribed on it. The national flag flutters from a single staff.

Given it’s the burial site of national heroes, it is very understated and, perhaps because of that, seemingly not one of the major tourist destinations in the city. Certainly though the years, when I have visited, there have been few people present, and it seems that visitors only go to Arbour Hill if they want to pay their respects to the leaders of 1916 – which, I would think is as it should be. Most of the men who died in Kilmainham, I would imagine, would prefer to be recognised in an atmosphere of peace rather than grandeur, and by those who respected their contribution to the state, rather than tourists with a checklist.

On Easter Sunday, at the end of the Centennial Parade, I made my way through the streets to Arbour Hill, passing ever smaller groups of people. At the plot itself there were no more than twenty folk and the ambience was respectful and reflective.

The Rising has always been important to me, the more so since a first visit to Kilmainham Jail in the early 1970s, when it was being painstakingly restored by a dedicated group of volunteers – some of whom had been imprisoned in the building in the 1920s. To meet those men, and to start to learn the personal stories of those who were “out” in Easter Week, turned the event from an iconic and historical moment to something much more emotionally human and accessible.

Whenever I am in Dublin, I make a point of going to Arbour Hill and paying my respects. It’s a private thing and I seldom write about it. In Scotland the Rising is a topic mostly reserved for academics who discuss “the sociological effects of Irish immigration on the west of Scotland”, left wingers who wish to promote Connolly’s socialist but not nationalist credentials, and football fans who demean the whole event by using its songs to bait opposition supporters. I try to treat the Rising as being above tribalism and something which, in terms of inspiration and humanity, can belong to all – of any persuasion or background.

I like the fact that my own family history is mirrored at the plot – with Seán Mac Diarmada of Leitrim commemorated next to James Connolly of Edinburgh.

On Sunday, I was lost in my thoughts, as is often the case at this spot, when I suddenly, and distinctly, heard Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” It was an extraordinary moment: the church was closed and there were only a handful of people about. Handel’s first performance of this work had been at St Michan’s Church – only a few hundred yards from this spot. I did wonder, for a moment, if I was imagining the music – after all, it was a very emotional day to be in Dublin.

Then I recalled that there was a celebration of choral music scheduled at Collins Barracks across the road. A burst of sustained applause at the end of the Chorus confirmed that I had not completely lost it!

However, it did set me off on a reflective trail, and one linked to the theme of thanksgiving.

For many in Ireland, the Rising is a little like the lost island of Atlantis. Most of the time it is invisible, but every now and then it rises out of the mist and above the waves and cannot be ignored. At that point, folk compete to produce the most accurate description of the mirage, but only succeed in imposing their own likeness on the apparition before them.

One hundred years after the Rising, there are many attempts to make it all things to all men. Everybody – from physical force Republicans to neo-con politicians – claims a connection, irrespective of whether their own views, or their own actions, reveal any similarities at all with the 1916 ideals. It is condemned for being “anti-democratic” – by folk who are incapable of producing a single example of a revolution which was based on a properly constituted democratic mandate. Pearse is denigrated for believing in “blood sacrifice” – with scant reference to the fact that millions were being slaughtered on the Western Front as a result of that same, contemporarily popular concept, and we are told that Ireland would have been better off, or would have achieved independence, “if they had just waited”. That last view merits some very hollow laughter here in Scotland.

Revisionism has become a major industry in Ireland as far as the Rising is concerned, and hindsight is employed with the subtlety of a howitzer cannon. To blame the leaders of 1916 for the subsequent ills of the 26 county state can only make sense if you are following your own, less than balanced, agenda. Again, those who say the Rising only achieved any success through the clumsy over reaction of the British, with their multiple executions, are making a redundant point.

The Rising is what the Rising was. The event and its aftermath cannot be changed. Idle debate on its advisability, or on the motivation of its individual leaders, or its structure and organisation, may pass the time in lecture halls, but cannot change or affect the facts, as far as we know them. Certainly it seems a difficult quest to blame the negative aspects of an independent Ireland on the actions of Leaders of 1916 without equally admitting to their responsibility for the positive aspects of Ireland’s nationhood.

Those involved were of their time – on both sides. They lived in a world where military action had long been seen as a justifiable means of achieving political ends. Wasn’t that what the might of “the most successful Empire in history” had taught them? Wasn’t that the example being set by Haig and Rawlinson, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff?

The IRB in 1916 made a decision based on the information they possessed, the beliefs they held, and the circumstances forced upon them. Had they not acted when they did, there were rumours of a round up of activists, Connolly was threatening to “go it alone”, and a triumphal Germany or Britain, after the War, would have hardly prioritised the freedom of Ireland. This may not justify their action, but it explains it.

The details of the fighting hardly suggest that the Volunteers were irresponsible in their treatment of civilians, and to all accounts the call for the surrender was based on the fear of more local people being killed. MacDiarmada, even in the midst of the retreat, was so affected by the accidental death of two civilians in Moore St that he repeatedly offered to conduct an enquiry, then and there – only to find the grieving family more understanding of the damage of war than later academics appear willing to be.

That the Rising set Ireland on the roads to regained nationhood cannot be denied – though, of course, people have the right to argue whether that is a good or bad thing, and so it was right that the State commemorated its centenary. Colm Toíbin made the good point when he insisted that the State had to take charge of the commemoration for fear of leaving it to others to claim the position.

My experience in Dublin over Easter weekend was that the Irish state superceded the ‘acting government’ and produced a fitting, appropriate, and moving acknowledgement of those men and women – combatants and civilians – who gave their lives in the pursuit of Irish independence. It was, as far as it could be, an occasion above and beyond politics, which drowned out the begrudgers, the naysayers, and those pushing their own agenda. It recognised the bravery, idealism and selflessness of those who fought in Easter Week without mythologizing the brutal realities, or forgetting the casualties. It paid respect to an event which was of its time and place.

There was no glorification of violence, no mass singing of rebel songs, no amnesiac approach to the fact that people died and suffered. The people I mixed with on the streets of Dublin showed sober pride in the country which has made its way through the past century. This was no St Patrick’s Day of drunken revelry, or hubristic celebration of “Sure, aren’t we great???”

The Parade, including the Defence Forces and the Emergency Services, was a reminder that the military can be a positive representation of a country’s ethos. Ireland has made a huge contribution to peacekeeping around the world. It must be good for servicemen to be able to look in the eyes of their families and fellow citizens, and be proud that their work is in defending the country, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and cooperation with the civil powers. They have joined no campaigns which have caused people far away to hate their country, performed no invasions, bombed no innocents. To see the Air Corps flypast was to be reminded of thousands of medical evacuation flights, to visit the Naval Service ships on the City Quays was to recognise the thousands of migrants they have saved in the Mediterranean, to watch the Army UN detachments marching was to be aware of the major contribution Ireland has made to peacekeeping around the world for decades. The Irish military may have been born in violence, it may have suffered in a brutal civil war, but its professionalism and commitment to peace and support in modern times is perhaps one of the greatest tributes to the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation, as were the numbers of female officers and other ranks throughout the parade.

On Monday, “Reflecting the Rising” brought a different sort of pride. With large parts of Dublin traffic-free and the citizens in holiday mode, it was a joy to be part of the inclusive and inspired celebrations of all elements of Irish culture. With a family atmosphere, there were venues for music, drama, children’s entertainment, historical reenactments and visual arts. Many Dubliners dressed in the clothes of the 1916 era, guides showed people around, Guards helped out with selfies. The space in front of GPO was teeming with people, looking and watching, gazing at the Tricolour and the green and gold flag of the Irish Republic, flying once more above the iconic pillars. It was like a colourful and happier echo of the familiar monochrome picture of sightseers viewing the wrecked Post Office after the Rising had ended.

It was hard not to think that Ireland can still aim for the high aspirations of the Leaders of 1916. And that, just as current failures to “cherish all the children of the Republic equally” still have to be addressed, so a pride in the men and women who first articulated those ideals can be an important part of the motivation to do better.

The gardens in Merrion Square were covered with colourful tents for children’s circus entertainment; the streets around filled with veteran cars, buses and traction engines. Strolling past the elegant Georgian facades, every house had a story to tell – of Wilde, Sheridan, George Russell, O’Connell, Yeats, Schroedinger – reminders of what Ireland has brought to the world.

And it struck me how much the Easter Rising was actually as much about culture as it was about politics. Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”, wrote Pearse: “A land without its language is a land without its soul.” He was referring, of course, to Irish – but it is an observation which can also be related to culture in general, culture being the country’s means of articulation.

The conditions for the Rising, the underlying enthusiasm for the regeneration of “Ireland” as opposed to “West Britain”, were very much created by the cultural revival – in language, drama, literature, the arts and sport, which had been gathering pace since the millennium – and so many of the leaders and influential voices in the Nationalist and Republican movement were culturally involved in the language or the arts. Connolly and Plunkett were, for the times, incredibly well read and, crucially, well travelled,, Plunkett, a poet, had helped found the National Theatre. Connolly was a published writer and orator. They brought a perspective to the enterprise – as did English Literature lecturer and poet Tomás MacDonagh, Ceannt was a musician and Irish scholar, as was O’Hanrahan, who was also a novelist. Pearse is sometimes dismissed as a dreamer, but his ideas on education were advanced for the time, as was his understanding of the power of words and imagery.

Economist David McWilliams has made the point that, economically, Ireland was better off in 1916 than it had been for some time. Like Scotland, it was still reaping the benefits of the mighty British Empire and its resultant world trade. You could make the point that the Rising, the Civil War, and Independence – followed by DeValera’s isolationist policies, did great damage to Ireland economically – but you could also point to the rapid decline of Scotland’s economy and industry in the later 20th century, and suggest that staying with Britain hardly preserved its economic successes.

It may well be that history will suggest that the great service done to Ireland and the world by the Rising and the country’s eventual, if partial, independence, was not in economic or political terms, but in cultural terms. It halted the subjugation of Irish culture into an amorphous “British” mass, it built on what was already there, and enabled the continued flowering of Irish culture through Jack and WB Yeats, Flann O”Brien, O’Faolain, O’Flaherty, O’Connor, Behan, and down to McGahern, O Riada, the Chieftains, Planxty, Gallagher and U2 – a continuing flow of creativity in different fields which helps preserve the diversity of culture in western Europe in the struggle against globalised, homogenous dumbing down of the arts and traditional cultures…

I had the feeling moving round Dublin on Easter Monday that people had a sense of that, a notion that they could be proud of Ireland outside of the tourist paddywhackery, the senseless drinking, the subjugation to the Church, and the record of the failed and cynical political and financial classes. I think there is the sense that a new Ireland is possible – that the words of the Proclamation, so hurriedly composed 100 years ago – of its time and place in so many ways, but visionary and inspiring in others – could still inspire a consensus for a better country, a better treatment of its people. It no longer feels like Ireland is a country which needs to bolster its confidence by declaiming what it is not, nor by constantly delineating its differences from the old enemy and holding on to grudges. If Britain has any influential meaning in the modern Irish state it must be as an example of decline and insupportable attitudes – neither a model to copy nor a standard to try and beat.

Sinn Fein – “ourselves” – need no longer apply only to a political party. I felt on Easter Monday, possibly for the first time, that Ireland’s people were realising they could kick on from a hundred years of establishing their credentials, from the in fighting, the excesses of the Tiger, the pain of the Crash, the kowtowing to Church and politicians, the constant looking across the Irish Sea for comparisons. I felt confidence returning that the citizens of a Republic can work ‘for the people’ – that inequalities can be tackled, injustices righted, bridges built, – and the past used to inform, rather than to suffocate, the future. That’s what a strong culture will do for a country.

I think, now, the Rising can be seen in a different context. At the RDS on Saturday evening, speaking to descendants of those who were out in the Rising, An Uachtarán, Michael D Higgins, mentioned the importance of “family”, that, whatever was gained from the Rising, the losses on all sides were borne by families. He mentioned how, when Tomás MacDonagh had kissed his sleeping daughter, Barbara, just one year old, as he left his home on Easter Sunday night, she had briefly wakened and hugged him. Such human moments remind us that, irrespective of politics, those who pay the price for revolution, on every side, are ultimately sons and daughters, wives and siblings, parents and loved ones. Perhaps that is the way we should remember all who lost their lives in Easter Week 1916.

In Capel St on Sunday afternoon, as I walked towards the memories interred at Arbour Hill, I had a sudden and vivid sense of the new Ireland. This was no longer the Capel St of Little Chandler in Joyce’s “Two Gallants”, it had a cosmopolitan air to it, and folk of many nationalities had hung tricolours from windows to acknowledge the anniversary. In front of me, and behind, were people speaking Arabic, enjoying the day, excited by the commemoration. Crossing the road, I suddenly recognised a familiar, half forgotten, aroma – it was the smell of turf smoke. Turf smoke and Arabic – symbols of a new, inclusive, and expansive Ireland.

I felt I was in the Ireland of which I had gladly become a citizen as a second generation Irishman. With the emotion which I had carried with me all through the day, I recalled the words of brave and fearless Margaret Skinnider – school teacher, Citizen’s Army sniper, and suffragette; like me, born in Scotland, in her case, in Coatbridge:

“Scotland is my home, but Ireland is my country!”

What a difference a day makes?

March 24, 2016

Today was intended to be Scottish Independence Day – though I have to confess, it was a tight timetable, given the negotiations independence would have entailed.

I feel sorry that 55% of the population felt unable to take a leap of faith in their country, and sad that many obviously voted out of self interest. There is an irony in that the winning side in the debate could only muster an argument which, in essence said: “Don’t vote Yes, it might be worse than this.”

In addition, it is difficult to smother a wry smile, when we hear Labour accuse the SNP of “letting in the Tories and austerity” – when such a claim is, numerically speaking, nonsense, and an accusation made by a party which, in Westminster opposition, has been chiefly notable for its absentions in votes against that austerity.

However, overall, my mood today is one of reflection, rather than anger.

I can’t know why a small minority of my friends – who mostly hold the same political ideals as I do – felt they had to vote No. For some it may have been blind loyalty to a Labour party which had long cast off its principles, for others the comfort of a familiar “British” status, and maybe some were just scared by the rabble rousing of Project Fear. Ironically, on jobs, pensions and welfare, the Armageddon with which we were threatened in an Independent Scotland, is coming about in a UK state the majority voted to continue.

I can’t help but cast my mind back to the night before the Referendum.

Outside the Parliament was a spontaneous gathering; it comprised all ages, classes, genders, and, I suspect, political philosophies. It was the strangest atmosphere I have ever experienced: joyful, expectant and comfortable with itself, not a sign of the usual “Wha’s like us?” drunken revelry which so often mars gatherings in Scotland where the flag is flown and the country is praised. I have seldom felt so exulted at a public gathering – and I’ve attended a fair few in my lifetime – it felt like the time had come for a different future.

And, despite the result the following day, that feeling has not left me.

Day by day, the sneering superiority of the Tories at Westminster, the desperate attempts of the Labour party to “oppose” without “losing Middle England”, UK plc’s pathetic attempts to “maintain its position on the world stage” – they all seem increasingly foreign and separate to what is happening and what is important in Scotland and to the people living here.

Unionists become irrationally annoyed when Gadhlíg is promoted, or if the Scottish Government involves itself in cooperation with other countries. Their claim is “You’re just trying to make Scotland seem different!” If they would only look, they would see that Scotland is different– not better or superior, just distinct – in many of its attitudes and needs and priorities.

If anything is aimed at demonstrating the difference between Scotland and rUK, it is the attitudes shown in Westminster, not just towards the SNP MPs, but in a whole range of policies for which Scots voters didn’t vote and with which they don’t agree. The UK Parliament makes the point stridently, and in public school yah boo terms, at every sitting: London’s priorities are not Scotland’s, England’s requirements are not necessarily in our interests.

So there is an understanding, I believe on both sides of the argument, that independence is not lost, but merely delayed. That is demonstrated clearly in the establishment’s fear of a second referendum. What have they to lose if they believe the second result would copper fasten the first?

No anger, then, just anticipation of a new day coming.

In such a mood, I find it easy to contemplate what today, or Independence Day whenever it might have arrived, would have been like. What changes would we see? How would Scotland be different?

Would there be gibbering in the streets as the newly independent Scots adjusted to their “black hole of debt”?

I doubt it.

Since 2005, the UK’s National Debt has increased from 38% of GDP to over 80%. Financially, the UK state is a basket case. An independent Scotland would have negotiated its share of that debt (8% of the £1.5 trillion) but would also be able to adjust and prioritise its spending in terms of its own economic needs. Trident would no longer be a financial drain on the budget, contributions to projects such as High Speed Rail and the London Cross Rail project would not be our responsibility. Taxation could be focused and generated on producing the best income for Scottish needs. Military spending would be angled towards a defence force equipped for home defence and peacekeeping duties – rather than a pretend “world power”. An independent nation could make the best case for its own needs in international forums, be it the EU or elsewhere. It would not always get its way – few countries do, but at least it would be in a position to make the case.

With economic control, and industries like distilling, energy, tourism, creative computing, agriculture, fishing, and oil – with all its fluctuations and imponderables – an independent Scottish government could make decisions which were best for the country’s needs. Even the unionists accepted that an independent Scotland was economically viable. Forecasts of economic disaster for an independent Scotland assume the same economic policies as are currently being pursued by the UK state – and why on earth would an independent Scotland take that route?

Instead of seeing Longannet Power Station closing today, we would see it heading into a new era of carbon capture with support from a Scottish Government committed to sustainable energy, rather than trying to ameliorate the cuts made by Westminster in this vital area of energy development.

The situation would be challenging, but certainly no worse than the mess into which the UK state has blundered over the past couple of years of austerity. The recovery rates of small countries, especially those who bailed out the people rather than the bankers, show that alternatives to austerity are the best way forward. An independent Scotland would be in a position to forge its own paths – in response to the votes of the people who live here and are most affected by its government’s decisions.

So: no panic in the streets we can assume.

In other ways, I suspect the change would not be as dramatic as some would have us believe. History shows us that major financial institutions and commercial concerns – whatever noises they may make in advance of possible change – tend to cope well with the notion of new opportunities and infrastructure. We would still be shopping in the same stores and travelling on the same transport.

The idea that we would be somehow “cut off” from England, culturally and geographically, is, of course, specious nonsense. One only has to have limited experience of travelling between France, Belgium, and Holland to know that those who live near borders coexist and work with each other, irrespective of national boundaries, and there is no reason to expect that travelling from Edinburgh to Newcastle or Glasgow to Carlisle would be an experience any different to the way it is today. The only politician currently talking about “building a wall” is Donald Trump, and I’m not sure even the most rabid unionist would want to line up alongside his particular brand of marketing rant. Even under the current circumstances concerning refugees in Europe, and though an independent Scotland might well be expected to have a different approach to England in such matters, border security and control can be negotiated between neighbours if there is good will – which there assuredly would be between England and Scotland – even if only for reasons of self interest. In trade too, both countries would have an interest in maintaining current cross border markets.

However, I suspect that those who voted No out of fear that things would be “different” were mostly not considering such matters; I think they were wondering what it would “feel like” to not be “British” anymore.

Again, this is a needless concern. Obviously, anyone born “British” would remain “British” if they wished; their identity would not change overnight, they would not “lose” their personal or national history. Pride in war time history, or in antecedents who fought under the union flag, would not be obliterated by political changes. After all, those who fought in the great wars were fighting so that people would be free to choose politically, not to extend the UK state sine die. As it is today, people would be free to consider themselves “Scottish” or “British” or any other nationality to which they were entitled – and many people for various reasons choose the country or state with which they identify – whether through birth, family, heritage or abode. Everybody I know who voted for independence was quite clear that a “Scot” was someone who made his or her home here, irrespective of birthplace or heritage – and the same would apply to those who continued to regard themselves as British – they would have the choice. Of course they would.

Last year I attended a lecture by Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole, in which he covered the speed of “change” after independence – based on Ireland’s experiences over the past 90 years or so. It irked me more than a little during the referendum campaign that Scottish politicians tend to steer clear of “Irish examples” for fear of poking the sectarian bull in the eye, because, as a near neighbour of comparative size, Ireland offered some ideas of how post Independence might look in Scotland.

O’Toole pointed out that, in Ireland, despite a violent conflict between the countries, British influence declined rather slowly after independence. The Irish legal system and civil service continued more or less unchanged for generations, persons from both the 26 and 6 counties are able to enlist in either the Irish or British forces, there remained monetary union until late in the century, and, in a possible echo of the Trident situation, the British retained control of the so called “Treaty Ports” by the Royal Navy until 1938.

In a bid to reassure the “Doctor Who” fans who were startled to be told during the referendum campaign that they might have no access to their favourite programme after a Yes vote, it is the case that, even in pre-digital times, many in Ireland accessed British as well as Irish media, and, ironically, the Irish government pays less to the BBC for such access than the sum amount of Scottish license fees which is handed over without being fully returned in terms of Scottish content.

In terms of the media, it would be nice to predict a Scottish Broadcasting Service which better met the needs of the country. However, unlike many unionists, I wouldn’t claim clairvoyant powers. The media is in such a state of flux just now, it would take bravery or stupidity to foresee how we will be served by the media – independent or otherwise – in three or four years time.

As O’Toole pointed out, a change of governmental system does not enforce a change in the way that people think. There are many in colonial lands who still consider themselves as “British” two or three generations after the union flag was hauled down for the last time. Even in Republican Ireland there is still huge (if, to my mind, inexplicable) interest in the goings on of the British monarchy. As would be the case in an independent Scotland, the historic and close familial and cultural links between the two countries are not expunged by independence. Some will embrace their “Scottishness” more than others, I expect. Just as currently, definition of nationality will matter more to some people than it does to others

So – if I am making the case that changes would not be that obvious from day one of independence, why bother? And what would be different?

The major differences might be be invisible on the street, but crucial, nevertheless.

We would be taking responsibility for the way the country was run, for the way it acted in the international community, for the way it treated its citizens. We could vote, secure in the knowledge, that, whether we agreed with it or not, the government of Scotland would have been voted for by the people of Scotland, and that no longer would we be 8% of a parliament which had neither the need nor the wish to legislate in our interests.

And we could send a delegation to the UN or the EU, or any other forum, mandated to speak for our people in international affairs with a voice which represented what a majority of Scots felt about important issues, rather than as an adjunct to the views of our greater, differently nuanced neighbour.

I believe as well that we would witness a surge of confidence in our capabilities and in the role we could play in Europe and the world. I saw that creeping around the edges of that gathering the night before the referendum vote, I see it every day in young people who refuse to accept the status quo and are looking for better.

The politics of “grievance”,  as the unionists put it, would be no more. We would be standing up to take responsibility for our own people and our own affairs. As any country should.

That would be different. And welcome!


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