COULD Ireland be reunited before Scotland becomes independent? Suddenly, both parts of that sentence seem entirely possible. Results of an opinion poll published earlier this week put independence ahead of the status quo in Scotland for the first time in recent years with 47% saying they would now vote Yes if the UK leaves the European Union. Only 43% said they would vote for Scotland to remain part of Brexit Britain.

A second poll showed an even more astonishing shift in opinion across the water. 52% of Northern Irish voters are ready to vote for reunification with the Irish Republic in the event of Brexit, rising to 56% if there’s a hard border. That’s without a White Paper, a Growth Commission or even a functioning devolved parliament at Stormont.

READ MORE: Poll reveals majority would back independence after Brexit

In fact, public opinion is running well ahead of most political leaders, parties, think tanks and institutions in Northern Ireland and seems relatively unencumbered by the “what if” angst and chronic hesitation that plagues many Scots.

There’s one big reason for that, and it has relevance for Scotland.

The Republic of Ireland has quietly been showing that it cares more about its neighbours than Northern Ireland’s own UK Government and is actively demonstrating that solidarity with practical help.

Now of course, we all know that anyone with an Irish granny, parents or an Irish birthplace is entitled to an Irish passport and thus a lifeline to free movement within the EU despite Brexit. Since the European referendum, the number of British citizens seeking Irish passports is up by a whopping 70%. Never have I been more peeved that my Belfast upbringing was not preceded by a Belfast birth – the fact I was born in Wolverhampton means I’m excluded from the Irish goody bag now on offer to all my Belfast-born former classmates. And there’s more in it than just a passport.

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Since 2007, pensioners living in Northern Ireland have been able to use their British travel cards to get free travel throughout the Republic of Ireland too. Actually, all senior citizens on the island of Ireland have been eligible for free cross-border travel to and from a single destination since 1995. But for more than a decade all elderly Irish citizens, north and south of the Border have had a pan-Irish “right to roam” – thus extending the chance for new prejudice-busting experiences to the part of the population usually most resistant to change.

The Irish Transport Authority estimate the cost of extending concessionary fares for senior citizens north of the border is £1 million annually. Despite the financial crash, austerity and ongoing hostility between the UK and Irish Governments over Brexit, this little act of generosity has not been curtailed or reversed. Pensioners from the fiercely loyalist areas of Northern Ireland have been able to travel to Cork and back for nowt – and tens of thousands have. It’s a wee reminder and reality check for those who think the border issue is a mere technicality or irrelevance.

Perceptions of life in the Republic have changed dramatically in the North – the South is simply not as scary place any more to Protestants and Loyalists. Politicians in the Republic have worked across party divides to tackle divisive moral issues like abortion, and in so doing have reaped a substantial reward – the creation of a modern, secular Irish state, almost a century after independence, in which religion is finally a matter of private conscience and not state policy. Northern Ireland, unable to agree even on a Language Act, has been hopelessly left behind.

And that matters to the British Government – not just because of Theresa May’s dependence on Unionist political support, but because the contrast with British attitudes is stark, and the tectonic plates of identity and allegiance in the province are moving at lightning speed.

The National: Theresa May

The recent Windrush scandal, for example, highlighted the difficulties of being granted British citizenship — former Commonwealth citizens invited to the UK in the post-war years were caught up in a hideously complicated bureaucratic process and a futile search for documentation.

By contrast becoming Irish has been a doddle, something that has slightly irritated existing Irish nationals for whom citizenship is more to do with Ireland’s unique culture and heritage than “keeping employment options open.” But there has been a much bigger plus-side to the wave of wannabe Irish folk – the confidence of the Emerald Isle is rising steadily after years in the post-2008 doldrums.

“Perhaps claiming Irish citizenship is straightforward because we, the Irish, never thought our nationality would be in vogue. Think Irish and what used to come to mind? “ Irishwoman Amanda Coakley wrote recently.

“The decades of exodus to the US and the UK, and those who created the music, the writing and the theatre shaped by loneliness and poverty. The truth is that 50 year ago no-one wanted to become Irish.”

That’s all changed.

Through its knee-jerk hostility to Europe, cooperation and immigration, “Cool Britannia” now stands revealed as backward-looking and utterly archaic while Ireland suddenly looks modern; the first country in the world to legislate for equal marriage – as the result of a popular vote authorised by a gay, mixed-race Taoiseach.

There’s more.

Previously unthinkable social reform has been followed by utterly unthinkable plans for a bridge linking and uniting Scotland and Ireland as economic, trading and cultural cousins.

Yesterday The National published the first sketches of the Irish Sea bridge proposed by Professor Alan Dunlop which has provoked interest in Ireland and Scotland. The Scots architect has proposed two options for the bridge which could connect either Larne and Portpatrick or Mull of Kintyre with Torr Head at a cost between £15 billion and £20bn.

Dunlop said: “We have the engineering and architectural talent and the capability to build this project; it would be a transformative economic generator and a world first.”

Of course there are problems and question marks – not least over the cost. But the idea that such a massive engineering feat could be undertaken in the “true north” of the British Isles is exciting, thought-provoking and a sign of changing times.

Ireland has come and gone within Scotland’s independence debate – cursed by a violent independence struggle, the on-going grief of Northern Ireland and the downturn of 2008 which prompted critics to ridicule Alex Salmond’s inclusion of the Republic in his Arc of Prosperity. But now the Irish stand revealed as a nation with more than money going for them. They have exhibited solidarity, generosity and care towards their northern neighbours. Old-fashioned values that were all but wiped out by the cruelty of the Thatcher years and much that has since followed.

It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Northern Irish public could demand a poll on reunification with the South – not likely still, but no longer unthinkable. If that happens, the radicalising effect on Scots would be enormous, making indyref2 irresistible and leaving Great Britain a shadow of its former imperial self.

As Coakley put it; “Our ‘Oirish’ identity is becoming a thing of the past, while the little Englanders want to force their nostalgia for the British empire on to reluctant compatriots.”