Earlier this month I attended a session of the Dalkey Book Festival entitled ‘Who’s afraid of a united Ireland?’ It may be difficult to credit, but in nearly 40 years of living (mainly) in the Republic, this was the first time I had ever come across a public, non-party meeting to discuss Irish unity (and as readers of this blog will attest, this is a subject in which I have a burning, if sometimes unorthodox, interest – in traditional Irish republican parlance, I am definitely not ‘sound on the national question’!).
The speakers were the eminent UCD historian and Irish Times columnist Diarmaid Ferriter, the Northern novelists Eoin McNamee and Martina Devlin, with (as moderator) the Northern Ireland-born British TV presenter and journalist Andrea Catherwood. It was poor stuff – one distinguished audience member with an intimate knowledge of both Irish jurisdictions called it ‘an ungenerous, badly chaired shambles’. The lack of a unionist voice (while Catherwood is from that background, she is now every inch the cosmopolitan British media personality) weakened the panel from the off. Devlin and McNamee adhered to the traditional nationalist view that unity was the solution; Seamus Mallon’s proposal to wait until there was broader unionist support for unity was wrong; its cost was greatly exaggerated, and the unionists could be won over by gestures like changing the flag, anthem and other symbols.
Ferriter talked truthfully about the past century of disengagement of politicians and people in the Republic from the North. I would say it is not exactly disengagement, but rather very limited and ignorant engagement based on old nationalist verities and shibboleths that are utterly unhelpful in the present difficult climate of Brexit and political deadlock in Belfast. An example of this was the round of applause from the large, mainly elderly audience for Devlin when she told the well-worn story of her young parents being denied the vote in Northern Ireland local elections in the 1960s because of the ratepayer requirement – an injustice that was remedied in 1972. Catherwood wondered if anybody other than Sinn Fein had a worked-out plan for moving towards unity (Do Sinn Fein have such a plan? It’s certainly not in their latest 2016 discussion document Towards a United Ireland).
It’s a pity that my friend, the well-regarded Belfast social researcher Paul Nolan, was not on the panel. He would have provided a complex but necessary antidote to the simplistic solutions being voiced by these writers and journalists. In an article in last week’s Belfast Telegraph,¹ Nolan outlined in some detail why Northern nationalists’ belief that demographic trends are leading inexorably towards a nationalist majority in the North and thus Irish unity through a Border Poll is based on flimsy premises.
He noted that the latest Northern Ireland Labour Force Religion Survey, published in January, showed that the Protestant/Catholic balance continues to tilt towards the latter community, with the proportion of Protestants over 16 in the labour force dropping dramatically from 56% to 42% between 1990 and 2017 while the proportion of Catholics rose from 38% to 41%. ‘It now looks like the Catholic community will be the larger community by the time of the next census , but that’s not the same as being a majority, if by majority we mean over 50%.’
The real growth, he pointed out, has been in another category, ‘those who do not self-identify as either Catholic or Protestant’. The proportion of the population classified as ‘other/non-determined’ has nearly trebled, from 6% to 17% over this period, and in the 16-24 age group it has more than trebled, from 7% to 22%. ‘If this trend were to continue it may block the Catholic community from crossing the 50% line; Catholics may emerge as the largest of the three main population groups, but still not be a majority.’
Nolan then went on to point to ‘a dangerous elision’ that is often overlooked in self-serving forecasts of inevitable nationalist majorities (even the Dalkey Book Festival website claimed that ‘demographics point to a Catholic/nationalist majority in the next decade’). He was at pains to stress that ‘not all Catholics are nationalists’ (my italics).’If past voting patterns provide any guide to future electoral behaviour, then despite the increased number of Catholics, a nationalist majority is very far off indeed. ‘
‘The long-term trend shows little or no growth. In June 1998, in that optimistic period immediately after the Good Friday Agreement, the combined nationalist vote (i.e. the SDLP and Sinn Fein vote taken together) stood at 39.7%. In the most recent Assembly elections in March 2017 that percentage had remained more or less static at 39.8%, and in the local government elections last month the total nationalist vote, including both the new Aontú party and independent nationalist candidates, dipped to 37.7%. In fact, over the past 21 years the nationalist vote has only occasionally tipped over the 40% line, and seems unlikely to exceed the magical 50% in the foreseeable future.’
Add to this Alliance and the Green Party’s surge in the local elections and Alliance leader Naomi Long’s nearly 19% vote in the European elections, and suddenly the Northern political landscape looks a lot less binary. The growth of a moderate, centrist constituency – anti-Brexit and wanting, above all, a return to power-sharing government at Stormont – appears to undermine the absolutist positions of both the DUP and Sinn Fein: that there is no solution between a seamless maintenance of the union with Britain and rapid movement, via a Border Poll, towards a united Ireland. We have to start looking again at new and complicated models of governance and sovereignty for Northern Ireland which are not the simplistic options offered by the two main parties.
Let us pray that this is among the subjects for discussion between the two governments and the parties in the current all-party talks. I hope my government, in particular, are not so totally taken up with Brexit that they can use the considerable intellectual resources of the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs to come up with some imaginative new ideas. But I am not at all optimistic about this.
However I am cheered that the Institute of British Irish Studies at University College Dublin, whose former directors include wise political scientists like Professors John Coakley and Jennifer Todd, people with a deep understanding of Northern Ireland, have initiated an ambitious three-year research project, in collaboration with a number of UK universities, called ‘Constitutional Futures after Brexit’. This will explore constitutional and political change in Ireland and the UK, including possible outcomes such as Irish unity, the break-up of the UK, and other ‘in between’ futures.
¹ ‘So are we going to have a border poll or not?’ 17 June