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).