Subscriber OnlyOpinion

True republicans should focus on bringing about a ‘good’ united Ireland

Michael McDowell: North’s demographics have changed utterly but nationalists should not pursue some 50% plus-one vote

Now that Northern Ireland is not, and never can be, “a Protestant state for a Protestant people” (a misquotation of Sir James Craig), the question of denominationalism in politics north and south of the border needs to be revisited.

What Craig said was actually slightly different. In the course of a debate in Stormont in 1934 he said: “Since we took up office, we have tried to be absolutely fair towards all the citizens of Northern Ireland.”

Challenged by a nationalist MP about a reference he had previously made to a “Protestant parliament”, Craig said:

“The honourable member must remember that in the South they boasted of a Catholic state. They still boast of southern Ireland being a Catholic state. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state. It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic state launched in the South with a Protestant state launched in the North and to see which gets on better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South.”


That debate took place in the course of De Valera’s disastrous “Economic War” and two years after the high point of Free State Catholic devotionalism at the Eucharistic Congress. In fact, both parts of Ireland were facing decades of progressive economic and population decline.

Historians of the present are now the “historians of the future” to whom Craig referred. It took a long time for the Republic to throw off the policies of economic and religious protectionism and enter into decades of sustained growth in population and prosperity.

And from the 1970s onwards the Republic has witnessed a dramatic improvement in the living standards of its people. But the same decades of economic growth have seen an equally dramatic decline in the role and status of institutional Catholicism to the point of marginalisation at which it has now arrived.

While it is fashionable in the South to look disdainfully at political sectarianism in the North, the majority of southerners should never forget that there was such a thing as southern Catholic sectarianism too.

The savage attitudes of the traditional Catholic church to mixed marriages, non-denominational education, and religious segregation in the provision of social services was firmly rooted in papal teaching going back to Pius XI’s famous Syllabus of Errors – a document which corruscatingly declaimed the absence of religious liberties for Protestants in Catholic states, the errors of liberalism and religious toleration, the grave sinfulness of non-denominational education, and the gravity of any departure from strict obedience to the authority of the Church in all matters. Well worth a sobering read.

Of course, it did not need such 19th century Catholic sectarianism to start or feed Protestant sectarianism in Ireland – well established and practised since the Penal Laws. But Catholic and Protestant sectarianism had a symbiotic relationship of self-justification and aggressiveness.

Dismantling denominational sectarianism in Northern Ireland is the true vocation of anyone, including myself, who makes any claim to adhere to true republicanism.

Naked and cruel sectarianism is still practised by paramilitaries in so-called loyalist areas of the North in the form of expulsions of mixed religion or Catholic families from their homes in a form of ethnic cleansing. The controversy around the attendance of Sinn Féin’s leadership at the funeral of Bobby Storey during the pandemic fed directly into loyalist sectarian attitudes and actions.

Last week’s preliminary census results show that the changing religious demography of Northern Ireland will affect the composition of those of voting age over the next 10 or 15 years. Unionism is now seen to be on a numerical “down escalator” even if there is no reason now to see all Catholics as predisposed to vote for Irish unity in a referendum held there in the next 10 years.

While the Good Friday Agreement undoubtedly provides for Irish unity in the event of the narrowest majority in a border poll, I strongly believe that true republicans should devote their minds, efforts and actions to bringing about a “good” united Ireland over time rather than pursuing some 50% plus-one vote for what could be a nasty, contested and violent unity scenario.

I am not suggesting that loyalism should be given some form of minority veto. That would be disastrous. But there are ways to avoid a scenario in which 49% of Northerners are brought kicking and screaming into a unitary state.

Reconciliation is a delicate process dependent on generosity. True republicans don’t have to match Orange parades with counter demonstrations, bonfires and flag-waving.

Present historians can give Craig the answer to his speculation of 1934. But true republicans should be mindful of what his “future historian” will make of what we do now to unite all the people of Ireland.