We are talking about uniting Ireland while it still remains impossible to unite Northern communities

Extract from new book Can Ireland Be One? says complicated dividing lines will remain even if Border disappears

Consider how British-identifying Ulster Protestants might react if they are voted into a united Ireland. We might assume that most would accept the dissolution of the union and their citizenship within a new state, albeit one against which they virtually defined themselves for over a century. They will not have the same fear they had in previous generations that Ireland would be dominated by the Catholic Church. Nor would they fear that a predominantly agricultural Ireland would be an uneasy fit with the industrial North. These were authentic concerns that they saw as warranting partition in the past. They are not now.

Ireland has good roads and infrastructure. The heavy industries around Belfast are gone, so both parts of the island might co-operate to develop a modern economy without fearing that the other would drag it down. The greater fear might be on the part of the South, which does not have the same dependency on state subventions and a massive public service.

So let’s imagine the new Ireland and the Ulster Protestants within it.

Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond and others will have campaigned for a recognition of British citizenship within the new republic to minimise any sense of grievance. The unionists will not be unionists any more, but they will have their flag, their culture, British passports and even, perhaps, British driving licences, he says. All this is being allowed for in some of the current efforts to imagine a new state.


And once the vote has been carried for a united Ireland it is inconceivable that any route might open through which it could be reversed. Britain will have accepted that Northern Ireland is not in the union. It will not be amenable to taking those six counties back if things don’t work out happily. That will be Ireland’s responsibility.

So what might unhappy unionists do?

Protestants in the Republic settled into defining themselves confidently as Irish and retaining such culture as was contained within school traditions, sport, churches and community. This gives hope that Protestants in a new Ireland would settle down and be happily Irish.

In the past, assimilation in the South was no doubt hindered by sectarian discrimination and the special position of the Catholic Church. However, there is little reason to worry about those factors now, so perhaps we can expect that assimilation might be faster. But let’s imagine how difficult those disgruntled, ill-at-ease British-identifying Protestants might make things.

The Protestants in the North are not going to spread out throughout the island and get dissolved into the larger social context. They are concentrated in specific territories. Chiefly they occupy two counties in the northeast: Antrim and Down. They also have communities in several other towns and cities, and within these towns and cities they live in definably distinct areas.

The Border will have gone, but there will remain a much more complicated dividing line between Catholic and Protestant communities in places like Belfast, Derry, Ballymena, Newry and Armagh; indeed, practically everywhere across the North. We know from experience that northern communities which predominate in territorial areas like housing estates, villages, towns or parts of towns tend to impose their identity on their physical surroundings. They do this with murals that declare their allegiance or celebrate their heroes, with flags and bunting, graffiti and painted kerbstones. It seems likely that Protestant and specifically loyalist communities will maintain and amplify that tradition in order to distance themselves from the new Ireland.

Along with territorial declarations like this comes trouble at interfaces, particularly at times like the Twelfth or the night before it. Currently ‘peace lines’ separate these communities and there is no outcry to remove those dividing walls, despite the clamour for the removal of the Border. We are talking about uniting Ireland while it still remains impossible to unite these communities. This might be getting things the wrong way round.

The problem with territory that gets defined as sectarian and exclusive is that people leave who do not feel comfortable in the marked surroundings, and the factional character becomes even more concentrated. In such areas, property values decline, industry stays away and unemployment and social deprivation increase. With these changes the sense of grievance deepens.

Although this Protestant homeland, as we might call it, will not be a single coherent unit at first, it could develop into one around a large consolidation of Protestant population in Antrim and Down. If tensions turned violent, as in the past, the likely strategic aim of violent loyalist forces would be to remove Catholics from parts of that territory to enable a clearer boundary to be drawn. It hardly seems conceivable that such a territory or homeland could realistically aspire to independence or to reunification with Britain or with an independent Scotland, but it could represent a perpetually tangible and conspicuous factory of grievance...

The Protestants of the South settled in after partition because they were a wealthier class with a stake in the country’s survival and because they were largely rural and spread out and therefore unlikely to consolidate territorially. They may also have felt a need to disassociate themselves from the Protestants in the North, who were governing through discrimination and expressing their culture through triumphalist Orangeism.

An Orange enclave in the new Ireland would be wholly different in character to the communities of Protestants which remained in the South after partition. It might not feel the same incentives to present itself as docile and obliging.

Also, it might be simplistic to assume that the constitution is all that people were fighting over, just because they said so. What did wild Protestant and Catholic teenagers know of the constitution when they first took to the streets? We might find out that that is not what the problem was at all, that sectarianism was real and fundamental, and that the hate and fear that simmers at certain times of the year had not gone away, had not been settled by a referendum because the question had been the wrong question after all. There was violent sectarianism before partition and even before the union.

Because they will mark out territory, the Protestants who wish to protest will be able to do so together in places that they are familiar with and in council areas in which they already have a political presence. They will be able to put the stamp of their British identity on those places and establish social structures, institutions and routines for the preservation of that identity. From those territories they will be able to express their dissatisfaction or even contempt for the Irish state.

Whatever grievances they have, they will be able to organise around and assert. They will control local government and send members to the national parliament. Those members will have the potential to be a much bigger headache than the Healy-Raes.

In their local government areas and segregated housing estates they will already have institutions and social structures through which to represent their dissatisfaction. They will have the churches, the loyal orders, political parties and paramilitary organisations. The current estimate of membership of one paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Defence Association, is 6,000.

Protestant unionist identity tends to become more emphatic when it is challenged. We can anticipate that many Protestant communities will settle down quite easily, much preferring stable conditions for business. But others will be truculent.

The estimate usually cited is that Northern Ireland has a million Protestants. This assessment can be dismissed as meaningless in that many of those included within the number are not Protestant in any meaningful sense. Many have close family relationships with Catholics through intermarriage. And many have already decided that peace is more important than division. Many recognise that they are Irish. They want the union but recognise that a day may come when they can’t have what they want.

How then might we estimate the scale of resistance that will emerge? Perhaps we can calculate it from the electoral bases of the most ardent unionist politicians, but that figure would include many who are not just as ardent themselves, who may be voting tactically, either to keep out a nationalist candidate or, pragmatically, to return a favour. Who knows? The vote itself on the Border poll would give us some idea, but even that might exaggerate the number that would be downright stroppy in their refusal to be compliant citizens.

Let’s assume that half a million Protestants might fit that category. That would represent about a tenth of the Irish population. These people have tradition, they have origins in the Plantation and they have religion in common. Suppose they choose to identify themselves as an ethnic minority vulnerable to oppression...

As a protest movement they would be larger perhaps than organisations which campaign for sexual orientation and gender rights. And then we might ask what they would demand if they organised themselves, which, as we have established, they could easily do.

They would first of all demand recognition as a distinct ethnic group entitled to special consideration. They would want equality monitoring to ensure that they were not discriminated against in employment or disbursal of public funds. That’s fair enough. That already exists in Northern Ireland, where such legislation was introduced to protect a Catholic minority and then extended to other groups.

They would fly the Union Jack or Ulster flag from all public buildings in their territories.

They would ask for reserved places in public employment, like the civil service and the police. There are examples of this elsewhere in the world, like the Indian legislation protecting scheduled castes. Indeed, the Police Service of Northern Ireland was set up on the principle that Catholics should have guaranteed places. They might demand that 10 per cent of the Garda Síochána be Protestant, or alternatively that the PSNI be retained as a separate constabulary in the North with 50 per cent Protestant representation.

They might insist on Ulster Scots street names in Protestant areas. They could use their collective pull as an underprivileged ethnic group to demand funding for festivals and monuments to mark Ulster British heroes. They might change street names and the names of railway stations and bridges to celebrate Carson, Craig, Paisley and the British monarch.

They may demand public holidays for their special occasions like the Twelfth and the monarch’s birthday. They will surely resist any ruling that Irish language be a compulsory subject in their secondary schools. They will campaign, undoubtedly, for Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth. They will be able to argue that Ireland is exceptional among former colonies in refusing. They will use their status as a minority ethnic group to demand special consideration. That will be leverage around other issues that we cannot predict.

Extracted from Can Ireland Be One? by Malachi O’Doherty published by Merrion Press at €16.95