In my capacity as Director of IBRU, I get lots of odd requests. Perhaps the strangest, though, was one that I received earlier this week from BBC Radio Belfast to appear live on BBC Belfast’s Evening Extra news programme. The topic that evening was whether a Scotland-free United Kingdom would have a funny shape. They wanted my expert opinion on just what was a proper shape for a state. Really.
The news story was inspired by the cover of that morning’s Belfast Telegraph. While the story itself went on to ask some very reasonable questions about what Scottish independence might do for relations between Scotland and Northern Ireland, BBC Belfast decided to simply stop at the cover art and ask whether, indeed, a Scotland-free UK would ‘be an odd shape for a nation’.
The strangeness of it all began with the call that I received from the producer, who more or less apologised to me for the station’s decision to lead off with such a banal question. The request also was odd because, although the news producer didn’t know it, I actually have written previously about country shapes, both in a story on map-artists on the Royal Holloway blog (where I coined the term ‘politomorphology’) and in an article in Geografiska Annaler on the ideal of the one-state island nation (in which, as it happens, I lead off with the example of Northern Ireland). And that takes me to the third reason why the request was strange: You can’t have a discussion on BBC Belfast about the ‘unnaturalness’ of a political solution that divides one island into two countries without waking up the elephant in the room: the question of whether it’s ‘natural’ for Ireland to be divided into two nations….and I really didn’t want to go there!
Things got even stranger when the other guest on the radio show, Liam Clarke, the Telegraph reporter who wrote the story, opined that it would be very odd to have a country made out of pieces of two divided islands. Of course, that begged the question: Why would it be any more natural to have a country made out of one unified island and one divided island (i.e. the current United Kingdom)? I couldn’t stop myself from pointing this out to the host….and thus the elephant was awakened.
The radio broadcast can be heard here, with the spot on Northern Ireland and Scottish independence running from 21:00 to 26:40. Notwithstanding the story’s not-so-stellar beginning, the conversation ends on an intelligent note, with Liam Clarke noting that the best border is one that people agree with, not one that looks pretty on a map. However, I still wish that there had been a stronger acknowledgment that if people in Northern Ireland should be opining about Scottish independence (which, for me at least, is a big if) certainly the shape of the consequent nation isn’t a very good reason for supporting either a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote.
– Phil S.