We need to talk about demography. In an Irish Times article last month the economist David McWilliams reminded us of some basic facts.¹ As we all know, the Protestant population of Northern Ireland is falling while the Catholic population is rising. But as McWilliams pointed out, it’s a bit more dramatic than that. He compared the oldest and the youngest cohorts in the 2011 census and found that in the over-90s category Protestants outnumbered Catholics by 70% to 28%, while in the under-fives the proportions were starkly reversed, with 49% Catholic and just over 36% Protestant. Extrapolating from the census figures, he calculated that Catholics will become the absolute majority in Northern Ireland around 2036: that is, just 18 years away.
There are other official figures which confirm these data. In 2015, according to the NI Labour Force Survey Religion report, 46% of the working age population was Catholic, 40% Protestant. The Protestant proportion of the 16-24 age group had declined between 1990 and 2015 from 49% to 36%, while the Catholic proportion had risen from 44% to 51% (with ‘others’ growing from 7% to 13%).²
All this has drastically different implications for the two groups in the North. For nationalists and republicans, it means that the long dreamed of united Ireland may now be within reach – although interestingly in the 2011 census only 25% of the population identified as Irish when asked about their national identity (45% said they were Catholic), compared to 40% British and a surprising 21% Northern Irish. For unionists – or at least the more reflective among them who try to imagine what the future might hold – it means they must urgently begin thinking about one of two things: either how to reach a compromise (while they still have a narrow majority) with their Catholic and nationalist fellow-citizens which is generous enough to persuade a significant number of them that it is worth their while remaining in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future; or how to begin planning for the advent of their ultimate nightmare – fight or flight?
Because let me make one thing clear to my nationalist and republican friends (those who don’t know it already). If what Sinn Fein wants comes to pass, and sometime in the next 20 years there is a Border Poll that results in a wafer thin majority for Irish unity, we will see a return to large-scale violence. In a response to an edited version of my December blog which appeared in the Irish Times³, a Belfast reader (who should know better) said my prophesy of “a bloody maelstrom” in the event of a narrow Border Poll vote in favour of unity was “a unionist trope which is traceable to 19th century Home Rule politics.”
He could not be more wrong. The unionists are a martial people, fiercely proud of their service to the British Army and the British Empire: when their backs are against the wall against the ancient Irish enemy, they will fight. Has he forgotten the mass unionist mobilisation of the 1912 Ulster Covenant and the original Ulster Volunteer Force; the bloody anti-Catholic pogroms in Belfast and elsewhere in the early 1920s; the burning of Bombay Street in 1969; the Ulster Workers Council strike against the 1974 power-sharing Executive and Council of Ireland (described by political scientist Tom Nairn as “without doubt the most successful political action carried out by any European working class since the Second World War”) ; the Glenanne gang of loyalist paramilitaries, RUC and UDR men in County Armagh, which bombed Dublin and Monaghan in the same year; the loyalist assassination campaign against Catholics from the 1970s to the 1990s? Some middle class unionists may reluctantly come around to the inevitability of Irish unity, but working class and rural loyalists, led by the UDA and the UVF, will quickly and bloodily adopt their favourite role as Protestant Ulster’s defenders.
The violence may be relatively short-lived, largely because the paramilitary groups leading it, reflecting the rapid decline of the industrial working class from which they draw their membership, are only a shadow of their 20th century predecessors in terms of organisation and ferocity, and probably won’t have the stomach or capacity for a long drawn out campaign. And they won’t have the British security forces to fall back on this time. But major violence there will be: of that there is no doubt. And what a bitter, hate-filled place Ireland will be after that renewed bloodletting.
Because there will also be a violent response from the other side. Anybody who has looked at the North’s republican commemoration websites (I recommend the County Down Republican Commemoration Committee’s site in what is often regarded as the ‘softest’ nationalist county in the North) will find there an utterly unrepentant glorifying of the young IRA members who died in the squalid internecine violence of the 30 years of the ‘troubles’, revering them as noble martyrs in the tradition of the rebels of 1916 and the War of Independence. A new generation of young republicans brought up on such a diet of uncritical hero worship will be only too eager to fight to defend their newly won unity. They will certainly not heed the warning of the distinguished public servant, Maurice Hayes, whose recent death robbed Northern Ireland of a wise, moderate nationalist voice: “One thing that should not be allowed is the glorification in song or story of what was mean and nasty and dirty.”
So if we don’t want a return to bloody mayhem in the North, what is the alternative? It is what is once again happening – with excruciating difficulty – in Belfast at the moment: an attempt to put back together the power-sharing Executive, in the most inauspicious post Brexit circumstances, as part of the complex three-stranded architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. It doesn’t help that the DUP and Sinn Fein are so poorly led by Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill: the former the personification of anti-Irish unionist arrogance (and probably not in control of her own party), the latter a kind of party line quoting republican automaton (and certainly not in control of her own party).
Maybe that is too unkind. Foster was trying in her limited way to adopt a conciliatory tone at the Killarney economic conference last month, with her friendly rhetoric about the two parts of Ireland being “tied together and part of the same neighbourhood and what happens on one side of the fence inevitably has an impact on the other”. And maybe O’Neill will have learned something from the damaging fiasco of the Barry McElduff affair.
One thing that Foster did say in Killarney is worth noting. She praised the progress of cross-border interaction since her childhood and the “unimaginably positive relations between our two states.” I am like a cracked record saying it, but I believe this is the way forward: careful, painstaking, mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation until the barriers of history start slowly to come down – not any reckless and premature movement towards a fear-inducing Border Poll. Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen had it right on this: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney should take note. For those of us who would like to see the unity of the Irish people one far-off day, this is the priority: to work courageously and unceasingly to soften what Yeats called the “fanatic heart” by dispelling the “great hatred, little room” that has maimed our beloved island for centuries.