THERE’S always been jostling amongst the Celtic cousins of these isles – an unspoken level of competition on the grounds of cultural clout, economic strength and (let’s be honest) the potential for delivering a level of terminal disruption to the faltering UK.

The Irish Republic, of course, has fairly undisputed ownership of the cultural crown, though Scotland’s music credentials have improved after the explosion of traditional music unleashed across the Highlands and Islands thanks to the underpublicised Feisean movement, Dougie Pincock’s Music School in Plockton and the one-man fiddle machine that is Orkney’s Douglas Montgomery.

But it’s assumed the Scots pretty well clean up in the other two categories. In terms of energy resources, Scotland has a massive economic advantage possessed by no other other part of the British Isles, or indeed most of the northern hemisphere. And the vibrant, self-awakening that accompanied Scotland’s indyref left progressives in Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and indeed England, green with envy.

The Scottish Parliament has greater devolved powers than our Celtic cousins, and more people, hence more MPs than Northern Ireland and Wales put together. Our economy is powerful enough to make independence a realistic proposition, whilst in Wales Plaid Cymru isn’t actively campaigning for autonomy and no party wants an independent NI. Scots have not been bedevilled by the violent, religious divisions of Northern Ireland, nor the conservative cultural baggage that’s stifled the Republic. Indeed Scotland has had a degree of institutional independence for centuries with our own legal and educational systems and thus a distinctively Scottish way of doing things. By contrast, Wales has bobbed along like a dinghy behind English legislation and Northern Ireland has been run directly by Westminster, as it effectively is right now.

Ok, you know all this, so what am I getting at?

Well, the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement throws up the tantalising proposition that if Scots don’t get organised to end London rule over the terminal mess they’ve made of Brexit, Northern Ireland could actually beat us to the punch.

Yes, I’ll grant you, that currently seems ridiculous.

As the world and Bill Clinton came to Belfast this week to mark the landmark agreement that ended violence in Northern Ireland, the ongoing standoff between the DUP and Sinn Fein meant the Assembly at Stormont was still not sitting. One of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement Seamus Mallon said he was sad and angry at how politics in Northern Ireland had failed to develop in the 20 years after the landmark deal, accusing the two big parties of creating political silos, debasing the peace process and “almost Balkanising” the country.

In the same week that Scotland’s First Minister was shown by YouGov to be more admired across the UK than Theresa May, the already battered reputation of Arlene Foster was dealt another blow by the revelation that she would “probably have to move” if the outcome of a border poll was a United Ireland.

Wow. There’s loyalty. There’s leadership.

I’ll admit that the harsh focus of this special week shows Northern Ireland has not lived up to the hopes of the optimists back in 1998. Indeed, sitting as we do, amidst the ongoing nightmare of Brexit, it would be hard to think of a place less likely to upset Theresa’s toxic apple cart.

And yet …

Things are afoot. Not necessarily in corridors of power or amongst the political class, but where it matters – on the streets. The idea of a border poll to re-establish a United Ireland is now the talk of the steamie in Northern Ireland, especially amongst younger folk. A UK newspaper survey last summer found six out of 10 people in the North want a Border Poll within 10 years. A poll at Christmas produced an even more dramatic result; 58 per cent of NI folk want to remain in the customs union and single market after Brexit and in the event of a hard Brexit, 48 per cent of those surveyed say they would vote for a United Ireland.

And that’s without any sniff yet of a formal #reunificationref campaign.

So what’s happened?

FIRSTLY, there’s been slow and steady demographic change. The 2011 census, asked parents what religion their children were being brought up in, with 49.2 per cent saying Catholic and 36.4 per cent Protestant or other Christian. And in last year’s Stormont elections, the long predicted moment finally happened; the two unionist parties, won 38 seats in the 90-seat assembly, whilst the two republican parties won 39. Of course, thanks to the mechanisms ensuring coalition government by the largest party from each “side”, it made no great difference at Stormont. But psychologically that was a huge moment that went largely unnoticed in the rest of the UK since it coincided with the death of Bruce Forsyth. Young voters in Northern Ireland got the message though. The future will not look like the past.

Secondly, life in the Irish Republic looks so much more attractive these days compared to life in the Walmart society Britain has become. Public services – once so much better in Britain – are now better in the Republic. Divorce is legal. Same-sex marriage is legal. And the Irish government is now set to tackle the biggest taboo of the lot with a referendum on amending the country’s strict anti-abortion laws before the end of May.

Yet equal marriage is still illegal in the north of Ireland where the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act also don’t apply. So which is the progressive and which the regressive society now?

Ireland’s new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar embodies the change. He is a half-Indian, openly gay prime minister. But perhaps even more significant than that, these personal characteristics were hardly remarked upon during the race for the Fine Gael leadership last year.

Once upon a time, Northern Ireland Prods looked down their noses at their socially backward country cousins. No longer.

Indeed, as Chris Agee, organiser of this week’s Crossways Festival, pointed out at a debate on the Good Friday Agreement in Glasgow earlier this week, young Ulster folk already have a way out of Brexit – their automatic qualification for an Irish/EU passport. That’s not just a technical solution, it’s a demonstration of a very different outlook towards the North that’s been emanating from Dublin, as London has so clearly been trying to find a way to dump its responsibilities.

And they are huge.

As former Taoiseach John Bruton pointed out last year, a border of 500km offers huge opportunities for smuggling, organised crime and therefore paramilitary activity. But actually the trade consequences for Eire are just as serious. More than 80 per cent of trade between Ireland and the rest of the world goes through the UK, so a hard Brexit will force Irish goods through four separate customs checks before reaching Europe. You might not have heard too much about Dublin’s dilemma. That’s because Ireland has chosen to concentrate instead on the interests of the whole island.

YOU could call that solidarity. You could call it enlightened self-interest. Or you could call it love.

One thing’s beyond doubt. The prospect of life as part of an internationalist, ethnically mixed and outward-facing Ireland is infinitely more attractive to most young Belfasters than life in the slow lane within Brexited Britain. Will that disaffection come to a head soon? Can Protestant supporters of a reunited Ireland find a political party vehicle for their cause?

Who knows? And this isn’t a race. But whilst the downsides of Brexit may take a bit of explaining in Scotland (apart from the obvious betrayal on fisheries) they will be crystal clear in Ireland.

If Brexit happens, the people of the North will suddenly have a physical barrier with the increasingly open society of the south. More than that, they will be physically torn out of Europe in a way no Scot can understand. For us, Europe is a long ferry or plane ride away. For NI folk, Europe is a mere car, train or bicycle trip. Being out of Europe will instantly mean a lot for folk in Northern Ireland. It’ll take a while longer likely for the penny to drop in Scotland.

Of course, life in the Irish Republic isn’t a bed of roses. And Ireland’s membership of the euro has been deeply problematic – especially after the 2008 financial crash.

But Europe and the transformation of Ireland are clearly intertwined. So the people of Northern Ireland could yet be the first to take a Brexit-related step away from Britain.

As the past 20 years in NI have demonstrated, with belief and common cause, anything is possible.