Shared Island: Northern Ireland is still a society on a sectarian edge

Could the Government be somehow pressured into arguing precipitately for a Border poll? Photograph: Getty

Wouldn’t it be a rich irony – those in favour of a Border poll surely must feel – if in next year’s Northern Ireland census coming on the centenary of the founding of the Northern state, the result illustrated that Catholics for the first time outnumbered Protestants?

It’s an ugly “count the Taigs, count the Prods” way of examining constitutional affairs, but that is what censuses bring out. And be under no illusion, as Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday approaches, so will calls for a plebiscite on unity rise in volume.

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down that movement but, if and when that crisis recedes, the drive for a united Ireland will advance. Names perhaps not so well known now in the South will gain greater prominence.

One of those names is that of solicitor Niall Murphy, who recently survived a close-to-deadly brush with Covid-19. He spearheads the Ireland’s Future group, which is pushing for a Border poll on a united Ireland. He wants that to happen by 2023, the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Belfast Agreement.

And Ireland’s Future does not just comprise fervent Sinn Féiners. It has attracted a broad swathe of support, appealing as well to the middle classes – doctors, lawyers, accountants and academics – some of whom were hitherto wary of campaigns that chimed with Sinn Féin’s ambitions.

The Government is resisting their demand, seeing great sectarian dangers. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has several times asserted there will be no poll on a united Ireland during the lifetime of this Government, because it would be “very, very divisive”.

“Nothing at all divisive about it,” is Murphy’s response.

The Government has set up a “shared island” unit to try to control this tussle. This is its blueprint for managing the complicated matter, but in close to 1,900 words in the relevant chapter, not once is the phrase “united Ireland” mentioned.

Murphy laments this absence, but likes the alternative phrase that is used. “A ‘shared island’ is a noble nomenclature for it,” he says.

“We consider it reckless not to plan,” adds Murphy, who is confident that a united Ireland is coming far sooner than most people think.

Polls could be held every seven years – a form of constant constitutional tension and argument that could overload a still-troubled society

He would appear to have a strong argument because, based purely on demographics, the advantage is running with the united Irelanders.

Under the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Secretary may call a poll if he or she believes it would be carried. But even were the first poll lost, polls could be held every seven years thereafter – a form of constant constitutional tension and argument that could overload a still-troubled society.

In the 2011 census, 864,000 people (48 per cent) of the North’s population came from Protestant households. Those from Catholic households accounted for 810,000 people (45 per cent) – a gap of just 54,000.

It will take the 2021 census to determine if, for the first time, Catholics form the largest bloc of the population in Northern Ireland. It seems likely that will be the case.

Certainly, the school and university figures indicate a particular trend. From nursery up to second level, there are 176,400 students (50.6 per cent) from a Catholic background compared with 112,600 (32.3 per cent) from a Protestant background.

Those in neither category who come under the grouping of “other” make up 17.2 per cent of the school population, 59,900 students. Ultimately, such people may determine the constitutional question.

The situation is similar at university level. There are 20,900 Catholics (49.49 per cent) in the North’s two universities, compared with 13,150 Protestants (31.2 per cent). There are 8,150 students (19.3 per cent) in the “other” category.

Domino effect

Some, such as Murphy, argue that the graph is going only in one direction, towards a united Ireland. They also point to Brexit and to Scotland, where the quest for independence could have a domino effect on this side of the Irish Sea.

But there are other views. Dr Paul Nolan – an expert on the peace process, social trends and demography – says nationalists are being “wildly optimistic” if they believe an imminent or even a longer-delayed plebiscite would result in a united Ireland.

“Civic nationalists believe it is happening because they get into rooms together, and those rooms become echo chambers,” Nolan says. “They become very convinced that the mass of the population wants this. But once you step out of that room the mass of the population aren’t quite so excited by the idea.”

But is it not clear from demographic trends, as Murphy contends, that in the years to come there could be a Green (as opposed to Orange) surge?

Here Nolan believes the united Irelanders are not paying enough attention to political voting patterns. The census, he allows, probably will show that Catholics outnumber Protestants, but not all Catholics vote, and those who do don’t all vote for nationalists. He does not believe the Catholic figure will be 50 per cent or above.

Probably more significantly, he points out that in the past five elections in Northern Ireland the unionist vote may have shrunk, but in each of those five elections the unionist parties outpolled Sinn Féin, the SDLP, and the smaller nationalist parties by a margin of about 4-8 percentage points.

It could be argued reasonably that, in very bald terms, Northern Ireland is heading towards a 40-40-20 split, with unionists and nationalists at 40 per cent each and the less constitutionally motivated parties, such as Alliance and the Greens, at 20 per cent.

Nolan is convinced that, for the moment and into the future, the wind is with those who want to maintain the union

The contest, therefore, will be for unionists and nationalists to persuade a sufficient number of that 20 per cent to vote for the union or a united Ireland in any Border poll. Much of that vote belongs to centre-ground Alliance, many of whose members are wary of the nationalist discussions.

But equally there are some Alliance voters who could be described as “soft” unionists, and who lament Northern Ireland’s exit from the European Union. If Brexit is a disaster, or close to one, this is an unpredictable group that could be persuaded to prefer, say, a “federal” Ireland, with the Northern Executive and Assembly still in existence and the North, with the Republic, back in the EU.

So, as ever, Brexit remains in the volatile mix. A path back to the EU via a united Ireland also might appeal to some younger voters.

Nolan says he can’t predict how that battle will ultimately unfold but is convinced that, for the moment and into the future, the wind is with those who want to maintain the union.

He asks: if the breakdown is 40-40-20, where will nationalists get that extra 10 per cent plus one vote to carry the day? “There is no possibility in the near or foreseeable future of the vote for a united Ireland reaching 50 per cent,” he says.

Opinion polls

Those pressing for the referendum also argue that not only is the demographic jet stream with them, but that opinion polls also indicate the increasing inevitability of an imminent united Ireland.

Here it’s a case of some polls do, some polls don’t. For instance, in February two separate polls provided two different results: one close to a “neck and neck” situation, having 46.8 per cent for the union with Britain and 45.4 per cent for Irish unity when don’t-knows were excluded, and the other having 49 per cent for the union and just 29 per cent for unity. There also have been polls saying a majority would support unity.

You can almost pick your poll to support your point of view. But while the polls often point to more confusion than clarity, they do at least appear to confirm that the constitutional question is to the forefront of many minds.

The Irish Government is very conscious of this, as partly illustrated by the decision to create the shared island unit within the Department of the Taoiseach. The unit could perhaps be used to temper the debate, slow it down, and allow for a focus on the three-stranded relationships on these islands: internal North, North-South, and British-Irish.

But there are lots of combustible elements here that could thwart any attempt to shape this debate in a coherent manner.

For instance, just to throw a few elements into the mix. Could the Government, considering say the more avid united Irelanders in Fianna Fáil, be somehow pressured into arguing precipitately for a Border poll?

There is even the question of whether or not the Irish Government will survive. Everything seems shaky at present

If the EU-UK negotiations collapse, would a subsequent hard Brexit be a galvanising moment for nationalists, North and South, and also for some of those aforementioned “soft” unionists? If Scotland departs the UK, must Northern Ireland be next? Will the UK government’s handling of Covid-19 be a factor in people’s constitutional thinking?

There is even the question of whether or not the Irish Government will survive. Everything seems shaky at present. And if, somehow, it struggles through to the end of its term, Sinn Féin could be well-placed to finally make it into Government Buildings. What then?

In the North, DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin are still at odds over allegations that Sinn Féin representatives breached Covid-19 social distancing rules at the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in June.

And while the Executive and Assembly are restored, there is little sense of a generous or reconciliatory collective spirit at work in Stormont.

There will be a lot of pressure too on the shoulders of SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who right now could do with the wisdom of the late John Hume and Seamus Mallon. He personally is quite “Green”, constitutionally speaking, but equally he must also avoid being suckered into too hard a nationalist position that would render the SDLP a sort of “Sinn Féin lite”.

Combustible loyalism

But the biggest combustible of all is loyalism. Not long before he died, Mallon last year warned that a premature Border poll could lead to violence and, in the event of the narrowest of majorities, a “completely unworkable majority for unity”. Reflecting on the discriminatory hostile unionist state he grew up in, he feared a sort of role reversal, with unionists being the “sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority”.

That did not wash well with many nationalists, and prompted a riposte from Prof Colin Harvey of Queen’s University, who asserted that the “threat of violence is not an argument and it’s not an argument that I will entertain or listen to”.

He said the focus should be on ensuring that whatever concerns unionists and other people have are addressed, but that in a Border poll a simple majority must apply. “That’s the rules,” he said.

But asserting that the threat of violence is not an argument does not address the real possibility of such violence.

In terms of the united Ireland debate, it’s the ultra-sensitive issue that dare not speak its name, yet it must be faced.

Assurances, as Harvey said, can be offered to unionists, but how far can that go, considering unionism’s obduracy and frequent state of paranoia when matters of unity are mentioned?

You can’t help but wonder, too, is there a dangerous naivety abroad among some nationalists about how loyalism might respond if the push comes too early? This is still a society on a sectarian edge. Think of how reducing the number of days the British union flag should fly over Belfast City Hall sent sections of loyalism into a frenzy of protest.

Think of why Northern Ireland still needs 100 peace walls to safeguard loyalists and nationalists from each other.

It’s a difficult area. There were some very telling insights into loyalist thinking about a united Ireland offered in a report published two years ago by Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly, called Unionist Concerns and Fears of a United Ireland: The Need to Protect the Peace Process and Build a Vision for a Shared Island and a United People.

As part of the report, Daly commissioned James Wilson, a freelance consultant, researcher and historian and former member of the British army from Coleraine, Co Derry, to sound out loyalist views on a united Ireland.

Among those he interviewed were 14 members of a loyalist flute band he spoke to in an Orange Order hall in Moneymore, Co Derry; nine former members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) in Coleraine; and eight members of the Independent Orange Order in Ballymoney, Co Antrim.

The three groups predicted different levels of loyalist violence if there were to be a narrow vote for unity, and some of the individual comments were coldly revealing.

“Folk laughed at Carson’s Volunteers in 1912. The Germans they met in the trenches on July 1st, 1916, they weren’t laughing”

One of the UDR veterans was sure unity would not happen peacefully. “I don’t see where the Garda and the Irish Army have the resources to contain major riots in over 70 towns, plus getting their units wiped out in well-staged killing grounds. They would have to raise a Catholic gendarmerie, like the B Specials, and then you will have civil war, way beyond the Troubles II and more like Bosnia,” he said.

Coming out of the Moneymore Orange hall, Wilson was approached by an older man who had witnessed the flute band focus group. Wilson asked him if he believed their pledge to armed resistance was serious.

“God, aye!” the man replied. “Folk laughed at Carson’s Volunteers in 1912. The Germans they met in the trenches on July 1st, 1916, they weren’t laughing. These young boys will fight for their land and their values – it’s in their DNA.”

In Ballymoney, one of the Orangemen in a questionnaire said those of his co-religionists who chose to stay south of the Border after partition had to live “in fear and silence, their culture, history and faith almost a guilty secret”.

He wrote that the “nationalist/republican minority left in Northern Ireland provided the perfect template for a minority response”.

He explained: “They have grown, thrived, united, mobilised and eventually resorted to disruption and an armed struggle to thwart the democratic wish of the majority in that jurisdiction. That would be my response to a united Ireland.”

Powder keg

Some nationalists dismiss these views as bluff and posturing; yet it would be foolish to ignore what appears to be a flinty authenticity to those voices.

There is no doubt that within significant sections of nationalism a torch has been lit, but it is important to ensure it is not a fuse leading to a sectarian powder keg. To make this debate work means learning from history, including very recent history, not ignoring it out of some sort of wishful thinking.

Which is where Dublin and the shared island unit come in. For the next few years, the chief responsibility would appear with the Government. There are British Foreign Office officials who have a good grip on what they might call the Irish question, but who knows what Boris Johnson might provoke. Moreover, most northern secretaries of the past decade have been far from impressive.

So the buck stops with Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar, who lead the two so-called “Civil War parties”. It seems only a little hyperbolic to say that, in directing the debate, they must take care not to precipitate another one.

They appear determined to hold firm in resisting, during the lifetime of this administration at least, what will be considerable pressure to endorse the calling of a Border poll. Both Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Future are well-organised and determined, and plan to be relentless in their demands for a plebiscite. That pressure will be taxing.

Constitutional unionism also has a big part to play. The tendency might be to see the shared island unit as a Trojan horse. Best therefore to leave it outside the gate by refusing to participate in the debate. But that will just lead to further claims of typical “not-an-inch” intransigence, which will further embolden nationalism. If political unionism has learned anything from the convulsions of recent years, it will realise that some judicious engagement with the shared island unit is necessary.

There will be the question of cost: could the Republic afford the current estimated £10 billion subvention Westminster pays to keep Northern Ireland running?

The unit offers the opportunity for a gradualist and sensible approach for whatever constitutional change may come. And it won’t all be about a united Ireland. At some stage joint authority will be shunted back on to the agenda, as well as mention of a federal or confederal Ireland, with Stormont remaining in place.

There will be the question of cost: could the Republic afford the current estimated £10 billion subvention Westminster pays to keep Northern Ireland running?

There is likely too to be reactivated loyalist or unionist talk of an independent Northern Ireland, or repartitioning Northern Ireland, or even, for some, “repatriation to the mainland”.

Whatever the constitutional destination, the big challenge will be to have the debate but to have it on the margins and over a considerable period of time, and in the meantime allow normal society to continue on; to provide people, particularly unionists, with the space to consider and not to be too distracted, or terrified, by the deliberations.

Mallon’s advice to those impatient for a united Ireland was: “While never giving up our legitimate aspiration for unity, nationalists must first aim for reconciliation within Northern Ireland, working with unionists to build what I have called our shared home place.”