Shaded and faded loyalties to mould the future Ireland
What these shifts are generally based upon are changes in consumption and residential patterns and the expansion of the middle classes. They may golf and increasingly sip wine together, but they are not actively promoting an alternative non-sectarian lifestyle.
Despite greater social integration we should remember that a mere 10 per cent of marriages are mixed. These shifts in inter-community contact are virtually silent, akin to the society-shattering but soundless rise of the Celtic Tiger that shook long-established shibboleths.
What we are observing are more Catholic middle-class pupils in Protestant grammar schools, more children with Irish names playing rugby and more importantly more mixing due to a Starbucks culture and the effect of new and neutral entertainment arenas such as the now snazzy Cathedral Quarter in Belfast.
This must not be confused as an endorsement of mixed culture symbols and attitudes such as the intertwining located on my great-grandmother’s badge. There are simply more shared global-like lifestyles. Social mobility has been the revolution that has changed lifestyles and thus attitudes more than the use of arms and the rhetoric of sectarian diatribe. Its fundamental force lies in the capacity to subvert loyalty to the highest bidder.
We await the latest results from the 2011 census but the data from the 2001 census suggested that demographic parity between Catholics and Protestants would come about 2035. Obviously, the constitutional position will be asserted through the principle of consent and demographic shifts. But I doubt a small Catholic majority will be the sudden end game for Northern Ireland as some unionists have learned that Catholic inclusion attenuates Northern nationalists’ sense of Irishness.
Moreover, they have also concluded, somewhat late in the day, that the Republic and its citizens are not hastily demanding a nation once again. Peter Robinson has probably recognised the need to keep “Catholics on board” as the only way to perpetuate the life of Northern Ireland. Some sections of the nationalist community see unification as an aspiration, but they also sense that it may affect their collective wallets. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger has definitely concentrated unification-driven mindsets.
Clearly, the unionist community is for sharing power but not for shifting regarding unification, whether small “u” unionist or otherwise. The big problem for those who want unification is how to stimulate the type of desire that once existed.
Battlefield of legitimacy
Their central problem is that for many nationalists the battlefield which was once based upon inclusion, state violence, unionist assertiveness and unification has been partly won by fair employment legislation, powersharing and the growth of the Catholic middle class.
In societal terms the steam may have gone out of the struggle. For the North’s middle-class nationalists there has been no subversion to the Union Jack but most certainly a shift to “I’m alright Jack!”
The battlefield of legitimacy over the constitutional future of this island is no longer on the streets but probably in the aisles of Marks Spencer. For those who wish to emerge triumphant from that battle there is a need to conclude that there are not two traditions in Northern Ireland but many that are either increasingly shaded or even faded.
Capturing and moulding such difference on to Ireland’s constitutional future requires a very different type of politics than we have seen up to now.
PETER SHIRLOWis professor of conflict transformation at Queen’s University Belfast.