The Catholic unionists
Catholics who believe Northern Ireland is better off staying with Britain – for economic and cultural reasons – say that there are many more like them who are keeping quiet
Catholic unionists Stephen Goss and Torr Coggan. Photograph: Mark Marlow/Pacemaker
DUP First Minister Peter Robinson has said he wants more Catholics to support the union. He speaks from a position of unionist self-interest. He knows demographic shifts will create a Catholic majority population in Northern Ireland in the next generation or so. If Catholic equals nationalist then the union is in trouble.
But many nationalists – and quite a number of unionists – dismiss the notion of Catholic unionists. “They are like unicorns,” is an often-repeated line. “They don’t exist.”
But though they are small in number, they are not mythical creatures, and they could have a role in determining the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.
Take 19-year-old Eimhear McFarlane and 45-year-old Tony McMahon, both from Co Down. At least once a year McFarlane travels with her father Patrick to cheer on Glasgow Celtic at Parkhead.
“I am a staunch Celtic supporter,” she says proudly.
McFarlane is a member of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland, while McMahon – who played senior GAA football for the Down team of the late 1980s and early 1990s – is in the newly formed NI21 pro-union party.
Both favour maintaining the link with Britain, as do Torr Coggan, Tina McKenzie and Stephen Goss who are also interviewed here.
If five people from a Catholic background, two of them from nationalist west Belfast – Goss and McKenzie – are so readily prepared to declare their allegiances, there must be more.
These people are far removed from the current tensions over yesterday’s Twelfth parades.
They have no emotional attachment or interest in such flag-waving and parading. They are genuine in their convictions, have thought through their positions and have carefully arrived at the political, economic, social and ideological conclusion that Northern Ireland is better within the union than in a united Ireland.
McFarlane has both a British and Irish passport and sees herself as “British-Irish”.
When she was 16 she made a conscious decision to become politicised. She considered the various parties on offer and, after chiefly based on what she believed was the economic advantage of maintaining the link with Britain, decided on the Conservatives.
So, here is a young Catholic who supports the union. That makes her a unionist, surely? Here, Tina McKenzie comes into the argument. She’s the 40-year-old chairwoman of the new NI21 party, founded by ex-Ulster Unionists John McCallister and Basil McCrea. It’s a pro-union party without the word union in its title.
“If people asked, was I a unionist? I would say ‘no’,” says McKenzie, who is from Lenadoon in west Belfast, again not a Tory stronghold. “But if they asked if I was for Northern Ireland staying in the UK, I would say ‘yes’.”
The NI21 backroom team insists that up to half the 350-400 people who attended the party launch last month were Catholic.
In many cases those Catholics who favour maintaining the link with Britain are guided by hard, practical motives. They look at how Northern Ireland has been relatively cosseted because of its link with Britain and wonder what state it would be in were it part of a united Ireland.
The revelations about the Irish banks and the collapse of the Irish economy, together with their greater faith in sterling than the euro, just bolster their view of the benefit of looking east rather than south.
The old arguments about unionist discrimination and civil rights just don’t seem to feature because the Northern Catholics with such views either have no memories of these struggles or are confident that they have been resolved.
“I identify more with British culture ”
Stephen Goss (25) is a PhD history student from Andersonstown in nationalist west Belfast. He hopes to become a university lecturer
“I’m from Andersonstown which, yes, is unlikely territory for a unionist. I joined the Conservatives when I was 18 but there wasn’t much happening so I joined the Ulster Unionist Party at Queen’s University when Reg Empey was leader.
“The UUP was very welcoming but some of the comments of [subsequent leader] Tom Elliott made me uncomfortable and I was a little disappointed in the leadership of Mike Nesbitt. So I joined the Conservatives again and am now chairman of Conservative Future in Northern Ireland (for Tories aged 30 and under).
“My parents reacted with surprise and, I imagine, some discomfort and some others found it a bit bizarre and curious. I was told by some people that really I should join the SDLP.
“I just think being part of the UK makes more sense than Northern Ireland joining the Republic. Certainly economically. Also in an emotional sense I identify more with British culture than with Irish culture despite having been brought up largely with [Irish culture].
“I think a constitutional monarchy is a good idea. If you are going to have a republic then perhaps you should go for a more executive-style presidency. Having a monarch who is completely above politics is a better embodiment of the nation.
“On parades I think the Orange Order has a right to march but they should respect the feelings of the people in the areas they are marching through. At the same time residents in areas shouldn’t go out of their way to be offended by the parades.
“There are more Catholic unionists than is realised. An increasing number of Catholics would be content to stay in the UK but, because of the connotations and associations, won’t describe themselves as unionist. But de facto they are unionists.”
“It’s sad we don’t have normal politics here”
Eimhear McFarlane (19), living in Belfast, from south Down, plans to study business in London, and hopes to stand for the Conservatives in next Northern Ireland council elections
“I support both the Down and Armagh GAA teams and travel to Parkhead at least once a year to support Celtic. I would be very proud of my Catholic background and would describe myself as British-Irish.
“I was really interested in politics when I was young, so I told my Dad I wanted to join a political party. He said: “Come back to me after you’ve researched every political party in the UK.” I did the research and, after six months, I came back to him saying I wanted to join the Tories. He agreed. I was 16.
“I went to Assumption (Catholic) Grammar in Ballynahinch; then Downpatrick High School. I was not the favourite in the A-level politics class. I was the only Tory and got Margaret Thatcher jokes every day.
“The majority of my class sympathised with Sinn Féin. The reaction, the “Up the ’Ra” comments, and all that, did not put me off. Whenever I was younger I kind of toyed with the idea of romanticised republicanism, the one-Ireland, united dream. Then when I started reading about struggles and British history I ended up saying, this is too romanticised.
“When I think of young Catholics voting Sinn Féin or young Protestants voting DUP I just think it’s sad that we don’t have normal politics here.
“I could never in a million years vote for either of [Peter Robinson or Martin McGuinness]. I love Basil [McCrea] and John [McCallister] of NI21; they are great people, they are excellent characters, but I would not jump ship from the Tories.
“I was never drawn to the left wing, I was more centre-right and very definitely would like to be out of the EU. I think Cameron is very wet. I would love Boris [Johnson]. He is very appealing.”
“At 17-18, I decided I was pro-union”
Torr (Victoria) Coggan (21), from Waringstown, Co Armagh, is studying business and economics at Queen’s University Belfast
“My mother is Catholic, my father Protestant and I’m a practising Catholic. My parents did not have strong feelings towards being unionist or nationalist – they have always sort of believed in letting children make their own decisions.
“I went to integrated school from primary (Banbridge) to end of GCSE (Loughbrickland) and that was an important part in breaking down traditional barriers that other people tend to face when deciding about their own political beliefs and opinions.
“My mother has always known I have been a little right-wing so she was not entirely surprised when I told her.
“When I told one side of my wider family they did not react particularly well. I did get the mick taken out of me quite a bit but you stand your ground and the novelty of it seems to have worn off now.
“I have never had rows with my brother or twin sister on the issue; they are not very political. You do come across other people who disagree with you but it is just about having faith in your opinions.
“I think on a very basic level the union makes more sense. There are better opportunities for Northern Ireland.
“If you think of the recent economic crisis and the trouble that Ireland got into, it would be very unsustainable if Northern Ireland was not part of the UK.
“I was 17-18 when I decided that I was pro-union. A lot of it came from when I was studying business and economics: that really made me officially decide, yes, I am a conservative and, yes, I am a unionist.
“I joined the Conservatives this year. I am financial and fundraising officer with NI Conservative Future and deputy chair of membership at Queen’s. I don’t think I will stand for election at this stage but maybe in a few years.”
“I want to build a better Northern Ireland”
Tina McKenzie (40) is chair of new pro-union NI21 party. Married with three children and originally from the republican Lenadoon area in west Belfast, she is managing director of a recruitment company
“I have never got grief about my viewpoint. Initially when I told people their response was one of surprise. But everybody who knows me knows what I am like; I want to build a better Northern Ireland.
“Everybody calls every Catholic in Northern Ireland a nationalist but what is a nationalist? It is somebody who wants a united Ireland, but that’s not me. Just because I am a Catholic does not mean I am a nationalist and it does not mean I am a unionist either. I am Northern Irish, Catholic, pro-union – so your religion does not define your politics.
“You can’t put people in one of two boxes, it is much more complex now. All the surveys show there are a lot of Catholics in Northern Ireland who are very comfortable with Northern Ireland being part of the UK but they don’t want anyone taking away their nationalism, as in their culture.
“I would have more culturally in common with my Protestant neighbours than with people in the South. That’s because we all grew up in the same society in Northern Ireland.”
“My reason for supporting the union? My wee boy and wee girl – what’s best for them”
Tony McMahon (45), from Newry, Co Down, lives with his partner and two children aged 10 and 8. The former Co Down minor and senior GAA footballer works for Invest Northern Ireland. He supports the new pro-union NI21 party.
“I played for the Down senior team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I played every year that they did not win an all-Ireland – they won in 1991 and 1994. I would say I am Northern Irish. I have an Irish passport and a British passport.
“If the Republic of Ireland was playing Northern Ireland in a soccer match tonight I wouldn’t watch it but if Ireland was playing England in rugby or in soccer I would be rooting for Ireland.
“As regards the Troubles I was lucky, I was very protected against that sort of stuff.
“My reason for supporting the union with Britain is primarily economic and it’s to do with the two children sitting beside me here – my wee boy and my wee girl – about what’s best for them.
“When it comes to the economy, a lot of business people don’t care about this Green and Orange stuff either.
“Being part of the UK and Great Britain has huge advantages from an economic perspective. It also has advantages in terms of doing things around the world, as opposed to simply playing the Irish card. And with regard to sterling, to have some control over your own currency is important. Coming from a nationalist, Catholic background you would think people like me would be all for a united Ireland but I genuinely wasn’t and I am genuinely not.
“In supporting NI21 I don’t think my views on the union have changed at all. I think time and energy should be spent on other things rather than fighting for a united Ireland.”