The beginning of the end of Northern Ireland?

Northern Irish politics is shifting decisively in favour of Irish unity.

Kevin Rooney

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Topics Brexit Politics UK

Have we reached the beginning of the end of the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain? Last week, University College London’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland announced that it will start asking residents of Northern Ireland to share their views on how a border poll on Irish reunification could be designed and conducted.

The group said that ‘recent developments have increased the chances that the conditions for a referendum’ on Irish unity – as provided by the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement – ‘could be met in the coming years’. How have we arrived at this remarkable situation? The question of a United Ireland has dogged politics in Ireland for a century and has been at the heart of decades of violent conflict. And now it is finally being debated by polite society. There are a variety of forces at work which have made this possible.

One is a simple matter of numbers. Northern Ireland’s Protestant Unionist population is in steep decline and the Catholic nationalist population is rising. It is widely expected that when the 2021 census figures are revealed next year, they will show a Catholic majority for the first time in the history of the state. Of course, not all Catholics are Irish nationalists and not all Protestants are Unionists – but most are. When the Northern Ireland state was created, Unionists outnumbered Irish nationalists two to one. Now that balance is something more like 40 per cent Unionist to 40 per cent nationalist. These numbers matter. The Good Friday Agreement made clear that while the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland can call a border poll on Irish unity at any time, he or she is compelled to do so if a majority of the electorate favour one. We are not there yet, but it won’t take long to get to that point.

Another reason is Brexit. The EU referendum has changed the fault lines in the north. Many say the referendum has made them feel less British than ever. Until now, a significant minority of wealthy and middle-class Catholics, while not hugely supportive of the union, would have been content to stay within the UK. Not now. These people, along with middle-class moderate Protestants, would have voted for the Alliance Party. Yet in a remarkable recent poll, only 22 per cent of Alliance Party voters said they would vote to stay in the UK in the event of a border poll – 31 per cent said ‘don’t know’, while 47 per cent said they would vote for a United Ireland. The previously Unionist Alliance Party is no longer Unionist.

The electoral maths is also moving against Unionism. For the first time in the 99-year history of Northern Ireland, the combined Unionist vote has failed to reach 50 per cent in recent elections. This is not only a psychological blow to Unionism — it is also tilting the balance of power away from Unionism. Not long ago, three out of the four Belfast Westminster seats were held by Unionists. Now only one is. And in another electoral shock, Nigel Dodds – the leader of the DUP in Westminster and its Brexit spokesperson – lost his formerly safe Unionist seat of North Belfast to Sinn Féin. The vote wasn’t just an indication of the growing nationalist population in that constituency — it also provided more evidence that a new emerging group of Protestants is rejecting old-style Unionism.

These changes coincide with a new mood in the nationalist community. From its creation in 1921, the six-county state has been dysfunctional, gerrymandered and sectarian. It was only able to survive through keeping Catholics as second-class citizens, while demands for equality and civil rights were met with state violence. While Catholics are no longer discriminated against or treated as second-class citizens, there is still a sense in the nationalist community that the state is illegitimate. Irish reunification and the removal of Partition are considered unfinished business. After decades of having to know their place, nationalists sense that history is finally bending in their direction. The mood of confidence and optimism is striking.

And the Protestant community is not stagnant, either. A growing number of younger Protestants no longer describe themselves as Unionists. Many of this demographic describe themselves as ‘neithers’ (neither Unionist, nor nationalist). They reject sectarianism as well as what they perceive to be the bigoted social views of the DUP on issues like gay marriage and abortion. This demographic is part of a third, unaligned force in Northern Irish politics. Their hostility to the DUP’s brand of Unionism could lead these young people to consider a vote against preserving the union.

Many of this non-aligned group also see themselves as European and voted to remain in the European Union. They consider the DUP’s support for Brexit as reckless and worry it could damage Northern Ireland. A United Ireland becomes attractive to some, in part, as a way of re-joining the EU.

A recent survey on how people would vote in a border poll revealed that 47 per cent would prefer to stay in the UK, while 45 per cent said they would vote for a United Ireland. While committed Unionists and nationalists are both sitting on 40 per cent each, it is the neithers – that 10 to 20 per cent of the electorate – who will decide the outcome of a border poll. The irony is that it is those who are least committed to either a United Kingdom or a United Ireland who will likely decide the fate of the six counties.

Another change is that young, middle-class people are increasingly voting for parties outside their tradition, including the Green Party and the Alliance Party, who are both neutral on the constitutional question. But when those who describe themselves as neutral on the constitutional question were asked in a binary border poll how they would likely vote, their response was illuminating. Sixty-five per cent of neutrals plumped for a United Ireland and only 14 per cent opted for remaining in the UK. Twenty-one per cent said ‘don’t know’.

Some of the reasons for the growing support for a United Ireland are less political and more pragmatic. When it comes to agriculture, sport, the economy, commuter travel and everyday interactions of border communities, it seems that north and south have been quietly operating more and more like one country. While many would vote for Irish unity for political, historical and cultural reasons, for others it may well be a more transactional decision. The current coronavirus crisis has reinforced this point. Everyone is pointing out that the virus does not recognise the north-south border, and many have been openly ridiculing the differences between lockdown rules on either side. This week, Stormont’s Unionist health minister, Robin Swann, approached his counterpart in Dublin to coordinate a more unified approach to tackling the Covid 19 pandemic.

As we approach the centenary of the creation of the Northern Ireland state, Arlene Foster has called for celebrations. But for many, like me, who want a United Ireland, the centenary is the ideal time for a fresh debate about how we can consign this undemocratic state to the history books.

Kevin Rooney is convenor of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum and co-author of The Blood-Stained Poppy.

Picture by: Getty.

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