Scotland and Ireland the Road to Independence (part II)


As discussed in Part I, Scotland and Ireland are very similar countries with a largely shared people: the Scots. Ireland is now independent apart from the NE corner. Many in Scotland hope to follow Ireland’s example. Are there lessons that might be learned from Ireland?

The countries have had contrasting fortunes over the past few hundred years, with the ebb and flow of history. We will first look at population as a general indicator. Secondly compare Ireland and Scotland over the past few centuries in terms of Economics and the effect of Union and Independence.   Scotland and Ireland today will be discussed in Part III.


Population on its own is not a great measure of the health and power of a country. In modern terms other metrics such as GDP per capita or Human Development Index are also essential.  Scotland and Ireland however are very similar countries, so population should be a good proxy of relative fortune.

I am used to thinking of the Scottish and Irish populations being similar in size, with the (32 county) Irish population, being around 4.5m and the Scottish population about 5m. Indeed this was a reasonable estimate, and quite stable, for the period between 1900-70.

The 19th cent. was dramatically different. The pre-1841 Irish  and pre-1801 Scottish figures tend not to be as accurate, as these were the years in which a full census in modern terms, was undertaken in the two countries. The pre-1841 Irish numbers used in Fig.1 have been taken from C O’Grada Population of Ireland 1700-1900. O’Grada estimates the 1791 Irish population to be 4.75m and that of 1821 to be 6.8m.

The population of Scotland in 1801 was 1.6m, hence in 1801 Ireland had over three times the population of Scotland. It is also interesting to note that the English population in 1801 was 8.9m and that of Wales 687k. The population of Ireland in 1801 was c 47% of that of Britain. In contrast the current figure is is about 10%, with c 6.5m in Ireland and 65m in Britain.

Fig.1 All-island Irish and Scottish populations 1800-2017


The most dramatic feature in the Irish population plot is the peak at 1841. This was the year in which the decadal census was taken. It is estimated that the population was still growing rapidly till  1845, peaking around 8.5m,  when disaster struck in the form of potato blight and the subsequent Great Hunger. As discussed in part 1, approx 1m died and 2m emigrated. Indeed emigration has remained a  feature of Irish life ever since.

The Irish population has however been growing quite rapidly since around 1960, apart from a pause around the 1980’s recession. Indeed the Irish population did not recover to that of 1800 for about two hundred years (around 2000) and has never recovered to its 1845 peak, though may do so by mid century.

The Scottish population grew steady in the 19th cent., almost tripling, and overtaking that of Ireland at around 1900. The Scottish population has been very stable ever since. Indeed there have been worries about declining population since the 1970’s.  This trend has been reversed in recent years largely through inward  EU freedom of movement (FoM). This has been largely welcomed by the Scots.

The attitude towards FoM in both Ireland and Scotland is very positive, in contrast to England. Both Nicola Sturgeon and Leo Varadkar are passionate proponents of FoM, whereas Theresa May gives every impression that leaving the EU is totally incidental to finishing FoM.

Ireland, Scotland, Economics and the  Union over three Centuries

The economic fortunes of Scotland and Ireland have been profoundly influenced by the relationship with England over the past few centuries. Which country has done better? Are there lessons to be learnt. We will look at the performance over the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries before moving on to the current day.

The 18th Century


There had been previous attempts to form a Union: there had been a Union of Crowns (as discussed in pt 1) in 1603, but never a union of parliaments. The time was never right and there was deep suspicion on the Scottish side that as the smaller partner it would effectively just become a region of England. According to T. C. Smout at the time of the Union England had about five times the population of Scotland, and about 36 times as much wealth.

In Scotland however the start of the 18th cent. coincided with the Darien Scheme. This was a very ambitious plan to set up a colony in Panama, near the Atlantic mouth of the current canal and set up an overland trading route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The scheme was a disaster and nearly bankrupted Scotland. There is a fierce dispute as to whether this was bad planning or bad luck. Nevertheless Scotland was in an economic bad way and despite overwhelming public opposition the Acts of Union were signed in 1707. Hamish MacPherson described it as a A Shabby and Underhand Deal.

The fruits of Union were very slow to materialise, but by the end of the century the industrial revolution was taking off in Scotland particularly in the Glasgow area. Culturally however this was a very vibrant time with the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh.


Eighteenth cent. Ireland was effectively book-ended by the Williamite War which finished in 1691 and the United Irishman rebellion in 1798 which led to the Acts of Union in 1801.

The century is also known as the long peace; almost uniquely there was a period of over 100 years in Ireland  when there was no major war.

In broad brush strokes the 18 cent. was a very prosperous time, with Dublin maintaining its place as the second city of the British Empire throughout the period. Ireland  was a very productive agrarian economy.  As mentioned previously, by the end of the century Ireland had three times the Scottish population.

Looking in more detail however, there were two major problems. Firstly under the penal laws Catholics and Presbyterians were treated as 2nd class citizens. The Penal Laws were, according to Edmund Burke “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” This inequality led uprising of 1798, inspired by the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. This was a collaborative effort between the Presbyterians and Catholics, but was short lived as French support was vital. Bad weather meant the French arrived in muck fewer numbers than planned. The uprising was swiftly dispatched.

The other big issues was regional inequality. Whereas the East of Ireland was very prosperous, the West remained very undeveloped, often without any proper roads or transport infrastructure.


Ireland still ahead at the end of the century but Scotland catching up fast.

The 19th Century


A near golden century for Scotland. The industrial revolution had taken off and Glasgow overtook Dublin as the 2nd city of Empire around 1820. It was a time of immense prosperity and unprecedented wealth. The major cities, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee all prospered. There were of course myriad problems caused by rapid population expansion, and industrialisation, particularly in the cities.


England had been very rattled by the 1798 uprising and relied on Ireland for a substantial fraction of its food, particularly as the industrial revolution was taking off. In total contrast to Scotland nearly a century earlier Ireland was in a very good place economically. England was however very determined to shut down the Irish parliament and consolidate power in London. Vast sums and bribes were needed to buy over parliamentarians. According the History of Parliament:

What followed amounted to an enormous programme of persuasion, particularly through the holding out of honours and financial inducements. Numerous Irish and British peerages were forthcoming, often as a reward for boroughmongers to replace their Members with pawns who would vote themselves out of existence. Financial compensation of £15,000 was paid for each disfranchised borough (at a total cost of over £1m), and the home office’s secret service accounts from the period indicate that over £30,000 was distributed in the form of electioneering sweeteners or illegal bribes.

These were phenomenal sums of money in today’s terms. The acts of Union were passed in 1801.

The other major English initiative was to embrace the Presbyterian community at the expense of the Catholic one, in a classic divide and conquer strategy. The Presbyterian/Catholic partnership which led to the United Irishmen uprising badly rattled the English. This proved extremely successful with the  Presbyterian community providing the bedrock for the DUP and many are ardent Loyalists to this very day.

The Union was a near catastrophe for Ireland with the exception of the greater Belfast region which participated in the industrial revolution. Large numbers of the Irish aristocracy and upper class moved from Dublin to London. Absentee landlords exploded. Ireland was kept as a cog in the British Empire as a major provider of food to fuel the workers of the industrial workers of Britain.

The Great Hunger compounded matters and dis-satisfaction with British rule bubbled under the surface. There was a belief that the English were at best incompetent and at worse callous in their government of Ireland. The country became close to being ungovernable by the end of the century.

On the parliamentary front there were tremendous efforts to get some form of home rule back; effectively a devolved parliament. In broad terms this was supported by the Whigs (later Liberals) but bitterly opposed by the Tories, who used every trick in the book to thwart the Irish.


An emphatic win for Scotland!

The 20th Century


Scotland was much wealthier than Ireland at the start of the 20th cent. and continued to be for most of the century. Probably two most important events economically in Scotland this century were the discovery of North Sea Oil and the de-industrialisation under Margaret Thatcher. According  Anthony Barnett:

It was oil revenues that bankrolled the unemployment, the destruction of manufacturing, the high-exchange rate, the termination of British coal mining, and the big-bang that turned London into a capital of global neo-liberalism and pumped growth into the South-East in the early 1980s.

Norway with similar Oil revenues set up a sovereign wealth fund, kept state ownership and is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The UK north sea oil wealth was arguably squandered. Very little came Scotland’s way. Indeed the Thatcher revolution was of little benefit to Scotland, apart perhaps to Edinburgh’s Banking sector and many parts of the industrial heartland have not fully recovered.


The first quarter century was dominated by the struggle for independence, or at least Home Rule. Home rule is what is now referred to as devolution and was not that different to Scotland’s position today. This seemed to be secured with the passing of the third home rule bill in 1912 but things fell apart, with the determination of the Ulster Unionists, the Tories,  and the outbreak of the First World War.

The history is complex but rather than the compromise of fairly limited Home Rule the outcome was very different. Opinion in the vast majority Ireland was overwhelming moving toward a fully independent Republic, particularly after the 1916 rising, whilst that area surrounding Belfast more entrenched in remaining part of the Union. In the GE of 1918 the closest thing to an Independence Referendum 71% of the vote went to Nationalist parties. England however had no intention of relinquishing its former colony. The result was the War of Independence which ended in the Treaty of 1921. The Treaty was far less than the 32 county Republic many had fought for. The result was Dominion Status (similar to Canada) and the separation of the 6 counties.

At the signing of the treaty Lloyd George is reported to have said “I have signed my political death warrant” and Michael Collins replied “I have signed my actual death warrant”. This was very prescient on Collins part. There was a resultant bitter civil war between pro and anti-treaty factions. Collins was indeed assassinated at Béal na Bláth about 8 months later.

Through the long grind of the 1916 rising, the war of Independence and the Civil War nearly all of original founding fathers and mothers of the Irish Republic were killed or executed. These were a portmanteau of all political ideas ranging from Communists to arch Catholic Conservatives, but the centre of gravity was well to the left. By chance almost the last  standing was De Velara who was very much an outlier on the Catholic Conservative wing and was able to put this stamp on the new state. This was far easier without the counterbalance of the northern protestants.

Economically Ireland was in a bad way. Not only has the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War destroyed a lot of infrastructure, but by far the wealthiest and most industrialised part of Ireland was Northern Ireland. Some 80% of Ireland’s industrial output was concentrated in the North. Germany without the Ruhr was nothing in comparison. Ireland was on the back foot but did not lack ambition with for example undertaking the largest hydroelectric project in the world at until  the Hoover Dam was built, at Ardnacrusha.

For the earlier part of the 20th century, protectionist measures were used and Ireland was one of the most closed countries economically in Europe. These proved unsuccessful and in the 1950’s, in particular, it seemed the country was economically failing. To be fair these ideas were quite mainstream until the end of the 2nd world war.

This all changed in mid 50s, when the Economist, TJ Whittaker’s ideas were adopted. Whittaker was later voted Irishman of the 20th Century. From being one of the most protectionist economies in Europe it became one of the most open. The results were dramatic. Ireland started expanding very rapidly in comparison with the Scotland and the UK, expanding from being c 2.5% the size of the UK economy in 1960 to c 12.5% of the UK economy currently as shown in Fig. 2. A direct comparison with Scotland would be ideal, but Scottish data is far more difficult to source than UK wide data.

EU membership has been extremely beneficial for Ireland as discuss in detail in my previous blog: Why is Ireland so Pro-EU?

Fig. 2. Ratio of Irish and UK GDP (World Bank Data).


At the end of the 20th Cent. Ireland was in the middle of the Celtic Tiger period and had become one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, overtaking Scotland and the UK in a whole host of international measures. It was not remotely foreseen  that things would go disastrously wrong some eight years later.


Although Scotland was ahead for nearly all of the 20th Century, Ireland overtook Scotland economically in the 1990s. Probably a draw would be the best summary.


The fruits of Union were very slow to materialise. In Scotland’s case not for at lest 50 years. In Ireland’s case probably not at all, but some economists and historians present a less gloomy picture.

Similarly the fruits of independence were slow to materialise in Ireland. It was not till the late 1950s, that the economy took off. Independence on its own is insufficient to guarantee success and it took a full forty years before Ireland’s potential was realised. Scotland however is in a far better place than Ireland was at the time of independence and given the potential of remaining in the EU should prosper.

In part III I will examine the 21st Century and the future prospects of both countries, but particularly for Scotland.



  1. Jennifer (aka Jeni, Havantaclu) Parsons -

    Thanks, Sean!
    Read this first yesterday evening, and decided to wait until today to re-read and comment.
    Has any British Government ever assisted anyone but the already-rich? Of course not! Democracy has always been a fantasy – whether a unicorn or a phoenix is a moot point (at least a phoenix does resurrect…)
    But we’re watching the last frames in the Star-Wars Brexit scenario, and pondering angels on heads of pins is irrelevant, while the true tragedy of the planet and its future is being – not brushed under the carpet, but airbrushed from all consciousness.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      very good point. In the big scheme of things Climate Change is the greatest threat and we should not loose focus. It seems that there is a high correlation between those supporting Brexit and Climate Change Denial, so thy may be more interlinked than at first obvious.

  2. Samuel Johnson -

    I look forward to part 3.

    It is extraordinary how the greed and culture of entitlement and impunity of the English establishment led to serial disasters (never mind the outright racism even toward the non-English in the British Isles). The 1916 insurrection was unpopular until the British summarily executed the leaders, a fatefully stupid move typical of other misjudgements in India, Kenya and elsewhere. Their decision to support unionist terrorism (literally) in resisting self-government and then partitioning the country now demonstrates the moral arc of the universe bending, eventually, toward karma (if the consequences do indeed have the implications we expect for the Brexit the Tory elites dream of). If the Irish had remained in a more federal UK it might have been saved some of the dysfunctional see-saw Labour/Tory politics of the last few decades.

    From Ireland it appears that the UK is still having trouble shaking off feudalism. The Scots toleration of much of it is hard to fathom. Your comment about the availability of data is revealing. The English have always ensured that junior partners get to see what they want them to see. There is some well established history of past secrecy about the extent of Scottish oil reserves due to fears of Scottish nationalism.

    My own impression, based on 5 years in Scotland in the 80s, was that the educated Scots with whom I worked were more afraid of their left wing compatriots (shipyard workers and the like) than they were of the English establishment. I wonder if they’d had better data about Scotland’s actual wealth if they’d have felt differently? I got used to hearing the Tories blamed for everything and had difficulty understanding why the SNP was not more popular, regardless of the economic consequences–no Irish citizen would ever agree to Ireland being overruled by the English the way Scotland was and still is.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Very true regarding data. There is a deep suspicion that it is less than transparent for a purpose – to strengthen the case for Union.

      Of course the SNP is vastly more successful now than in the 1980s but it does surprise me the hold the English have on the Scots. Of courese there was a “Golden Period” in the 19th cent. which may mean the suspicion of English motives is less acute.

      1. Peter May -

        “If the Irish had remained in a more federal UK it might have been saved some of the dysfunctional see-saw Labour/Tory politics of the last few decades.”
        That is so very true – a great pity.
        “There is a deep suspicion that data is less than transparent for a purpose – to strengthen the case for Union.”
        But that may simply be better together (so why try to seperate it?) which, in spite of the current governance – even because of – I tend to think is alright. All of Scotland is significantly less in population than London yet it is attached to all of our landmass.
        I’m in favour of Cornish independance – until I think of the consequences…

  3. Iain Macmillan -

    You really seem to have swallowed a lot of the English/British propaganda re. The History of Scotland.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks! I take any English/British propaganda with a grain of salt and am well aware the victors and the powerful get to write history. I suspect you are referring to the Darien Scheme? I have heard it said that the financial impact on Scotland was very much overstated and was much less important than subsequent histories indicate. It was a useful tool of the English to destroy Scots confidence perhaps?

  4. Sean Danaher -

    replies are nested only two deep so this a reply to your comment. Had a proper federalist structure been set up around say 1913, history might have panned out very differently but this was torpedoed by the ‘Home Rule means Rome Rule” Unionists.

    Things have panned out very well for Ireland, indeed by a strange symmetry Ireland’s 21st cent may well resemble Scotland’s 19th cent. Thee is near zero appetite for rejoining with the UK – probably fewer than 5% of voters.

    I was pleased Scotland remained in the UK, not for Scotland’s sake but I thought it would be very bad for rUK making a permanent Tory majority more likely.

    If the UK were a real federation of equals with a proper federal structure then I would agree completely the Union is probably a good thing. Westminster and May seem however to be ignoring Scotland completely.

    I will be writing a lot more in my part III and hopefully we can have a useful discussion then!

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