Shaded and faded loyalties to mould the future Ireland

 

OPINION:I have my great-grandmother’s Ulster Women’s Unionist Council badge which she must have worn sometime after the first World War. It has the legend “For God and Ulster” and two inter-twinned flags.

A union flag to represent Britishness and an Erin Go Bragh flag to represent cultural Irishness. Such mixed symbolism was once commonplace. For example, the mythical figure of Cúchulainn stands in the GPO as a representation of unbroken Irish resistance but also appears on loyalist gable ends as a sign of Ulster’s defiance.

In social terms there is a history of mixed marriage, Catholic unionists and Protestant republicans and those who stood somewhere between the two.

For some of us the arrival of punk on to the narrow streets of Belfast or Derry inspired a sense of anger and rage about a conflict that took lives but led nowhere.

When Stiff Little Fingers sang of sectarianism and in so doing pointed a finger at multiple protagonists it created, for some, a sense of inclusion into a life of opposition to the repetitive and dull edicts of thoughtless and naive bigots.

However, in retrospect those teenage dreams of a new future did little to shape or fashion politics and in some instances they merely encouraged some to get on the boat and head off to less dangerously confusing places. In essence, the guns were put away not because civic society sought a new beginning but because loyalists and republicans either realised the futility or incapacity of their violence.

There were undoubtedly good causes articulated against conflict. Yet Northern Ireland, if we are really honest, has never produced a strong and enduring anti-sectarian or post-nationalist cause, proven by the low numbers of pupils in integrated education.

That is not to detract from those who led good causes as they showed leadership where there was none. But in reality the changes that are taking place, and which shade the standards of the orange and the green, are being shaped by forces beyond the Dáil and Stormont.

There have been undoubted changes in Northern Ireland as testified by the decline in violence and the stability of powersharing. Unsurprising then that the 2010 Life and Times Survey indicated that a mere 3 per cent of respondents felt that relations between Catholics and Protestants had worsened over the previous five years.

Green and orange

Furthermore, the bedding down of devolution seems to have drawn some Catholic respondents away from a desire for unification. In 1998, 49 per cent of Catholics wished for a reunited Ireland compared to 33 per cent in 2010. Between 1999 and 2010 the share who considered themselves to be Northern Irish rose from 19 per cent to 28 per cent, with a significant decline in Protestants and Catholics who considered themselves to be British (-13 per cent) or Irish (-10 per cent).

Two-thirds of those aged 18-24 now consider themselves to be neither unionist nor nationalist. In parallel to these identity shifts turnout in Northern Ireland Assembly elections between 1998 and 2011 fell from 70 per cent to 54.5 per cent. It is probably best to now think of various shades of green and orange, more diluted forms of identity and a blurring of nationalist and unionist orthodoxies.

But we must not read this dilution of identity as being movement oriented. There is no significant politics of inter-community identity nor is there a vocalisation of the positive shifts that are taking place.

What these shifts are generally based upon are changes in consumption and residential patterns and the expansion of the middle classes. They may golf and increasingly sip wine together, but they are not actively promoting an alternative non-sectarian lifestyle.

Despite greater social integration we should remember that a mere 10 per cent of marriages are mixed. These shifts in inter-community contact are virtually silent, akin to the society-shattering but soundless rise of the Celtic Tiger that shook long-established shibboleths.

What we are observing are more Catholic middle-class pupils in Protestant grammar schools, more children with Irish names playing rugby and more importantly more mixing due to a Starbucks culture and the effect of new and neutral entertainment arenas such as the now snazzy Cathedral Quarter in Belfast.

This must not be confused as an endorsement of mixed culture symbols and attitudes such as the intertwining located on my great-grandmother’s badge. There are simply more shared global-like lifestyles. Social mobility has been the revolution that has changed lifestyles and thus attitudes more than the use of arms and the rhetoric of sectarian diatribe. Its fundamental force lies in the capacity to subvert loyalty to the highest bidder.

We await the latest results from the 2011 census but the data from the 2001 census suggested that demographic parity between Catholics and Protestants would come about 2035. Obviously, the constitutional position will be asserted through the principle of consent and demographic shifts. But I doubt a small Catholic majority will be the sudden end game for Northern Ireland as some unionists have learned that Catholic inclusion attenuates Northern nationalists’ sense of Irishness.

Moreover, they have also concluded, somewhat late in the day, that the Republic and its citizens are not hastily demanding a nation once again. Peter Robinson has probably recognised the need to keep “Catholics on board” as the only way to perpetuate the life of Northern Ireland. Some sections of the nationalist community see unification as an aspiration, but they also sense that it may affect their collective wallets. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger has definitely concentrated unification-driven mindsets.

Clearly, the unionist community is for sharing power but not for shifting regarding unification, whether small “u” unionist or otherwise. The big problem for those who want unification is how to stimulate the type of desire that once existed.

Battlefield of legitimacy

Their central problem is that for many nationalists the battlefield which was once based upon inclusion, state violence, unionist assertiveness and unification has been partly won by fair employment legislation, powersharing and the growth of the Catholic middle class.

In societal terms the steam may have gone out of the struggle. For the North’s middle-class nationalists there has been no subversion to the Union Jack but most certainly a shift to “I’m alright Jack!”

The battlefield of legitimacy over the constitutional future of this island is no longer on the streets but probably in the aisles of Marks Spencer. For those who wish to emerge triumphant from that battle there is a need to conclude that there are not two traditions in Northern Ireland but many that are either increasingly shaded or even faded.

Capturing and moulding such difference on to Ireland’s constitutional future requires a very different type of politics than we have seen up to now.


PETER SHIRLOWis professor of conflict transformation at Queen’s University Belfast.

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