LAST week saw an earthquake in Irish political history when Sinn Fein became the largest political party in the Northern Irish Assembly, the first time an Irish nationalist party has done so since Northern Ireland’s creation in 1921.

Several factors have underpinned Sinn Fein’s victory, not least the fracturing of Unionism and Sinn Fein’s focus on the cost of living crisis during the election campaign.

Regardless, the fact that this has happened in a territory that was originally designed to disenfranchise the Catholic community is significant.

Coming from a Scots Catholic family that can trace its ancestry on all sides back to Ireland, I have been following this election and its outcome keenly, as many Scots have, with some drawing parallels between the constitutional politics of both countries.

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However, the relationship between the two is complex. Efforts by campaigners and historians such as Sir Geoff Palmer have highlighted Scotland’s colonial past to the public and the benefits reaped by Scotland from British imperialism.

Such efforts have helped combat the erroneous perception that Scotland was a victim of English colonialism. This colonial past mandates caution and respect when comparing the constitutional politics of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Indeed, Scotland and Northern Ireland’s historical relationship further illustrates the necessity of speaking with respect due to Scottish colonialism’s ugly legacy.

In the early 17th century, the province of Ulster (present-day Northern Ireland plus the counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan) was a base from which many Irish nobles launched rebellions against English rule in Ireland.

In response, the English authorities planned a process known as the Plantation of Ulster, through which the Crown would confiscate land from Irish nobles and distribute it among English and Scottish settlers.

The plantation was presented to James VI and I, the first joint King of Scotland, England and Ireland, as a pan-British enterprise to “civilise” Ulster.

James sought to reward his Scottish supporters to assure them he would not forget them after becoming King of England and had previously sanctioned the brutal colonisation of the Gaelic Highlands and islands by Lowlanders.

With his backing, thousands of Protestant Scots and English migrated to Ulster to settle on the confiscated land.

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The colonisation of Ulster continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, with the Scots and English settling in massive numbers.

The province went from being a Gaelic stronghold to the epicentre of British-ruled Ireland.

It was this settler colonialism that ultimately resulted in the 1921 partition of Ireland along ethno-religious lines and ensured that the minority Catholic citizenry in Northern Ireland would be dominated by a Protestant majority, aided by gerrymandering and restrictive franchise requirements that all but locked Catholics out of power until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The border aside, the wider cultural legacies of this colonisation are still evident. Ulster-Scots, a dialect of Scots, is still spoken in parts of Northern Ireland and Presbyterianism remains the province’s largest Protestant denomination. Just as I can trace my ancestry to Armagh and Strabane, so too can others trace theirs from Ballymena to Ayr or Stranraer.

But both Unionists and nationalists in Scotland must be careful about a direct political comparison. It is understandable that two countries close in culture and geography with significant secessionist movements are bound produce political comparisons.

But the root cause of the independence and re-unification movements could not be more different. Ireland was subjected to British colonialism for hundreds of years and arguably nowhere is this more evident than the North.

Meanwhile, Scotland subjected Ireland and other countries across the global south to the full might of this colonialism, becoming incredibly wealthy in the process.

While Northern Ireland also benefitted from British imperialism, the scars of colonialism remained seared into the province. The concentration of power and wealth away from the Catholic community up until recently serves as an illustration of this fact.

The historical differences and the legacy of Scots-English colonialism in Northern Ireland mandate that Scots speak carefully when discussing the two and avoid erroneous conflations between Irish reunification and Scottish independence or indeed Northern Irish Unionism and Scottish Unionism.

Whereas one debate deals with restoring a nation’s sovereignty and independence, the other seeks to directly address the legacy of colonialism.

As the chant goes:

“One of these things is not like the other”.

This column originally appeared in our sister title, The National Scotland.

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