An image sprang into my mind this morning as I began to consider the implications of the most recent elections in Northern Ireland, which saw Sinn Fein displace the Democratic Unionist Party as the largest force in local government.
The image was of the Twelfth of July celebrations, when the Orange Order and, in effect, the entire loyalist community come together to commemorate the victory of William of Orange over the Catholic James II in 1690 and their devotion to the British state and its Protestant monarchy.
I imagined the 900,000 or so Unionist people marching behind Orange banners and flute bands onto a fleet of ships that would convey them across the water to Scotland, traditionally, if not always accurately, perceived to be their ancestral home. There, in due course, and with no sense of irony, they would throw their weight behind the SNP, demanding separation from England, a nation they regard as treasonous to the British cause.
It won’t happen, of course, at least not all at once. Instead, the trickle of students and other young people from a Unionist background heading east in search of work will in the years ahead become a steady stream. Nationalists, partly as a result of an actual increase in their numbers, but, more importantly, as a growing percentage of the aggregate population, will focus on achieving Irish unity within the European Union, leaving loyalists either to adapt to the new reality or else to board the emigrant ships.
That is how history works. Unity might not happen, but the prospect is real and it cannot simply be wished away. The alternative, a Northern Ireland that continues long-term as part of the United Kingdom, would realistically require the Stormont Assembly to function as a devolved parliament, endorsed by both communities. The problem is that the status quo is inherently unworkable. With Sinn Fein, led by a determinedly Republican First Minister, pressing relentlessly for Irish unity (the sole reason for its existence) and the DUP (British to the core) refusing to bow to any movement in that direction, the schism that has been front and centre for the last hundred years could well persist until Stormont falls to pieces under the weight of its contradictions.
As things stand, the nationalist population is gradually winning the numbers game. In last week’s local government elections, Sinn Fein – long-time bedfellows of the Provisional IRA – won 144 seats against the DUP’s 122. A similar advance was made in the last Stormont elections, only for the resulting Assembly to be boycotted by the DUP.
There are now more Catholics and people of Catholic heritage living in the province than Protestants and those of Protestant heritage. In 1922, when partition was established, Protestants made up almost 65 per cent of the population of the Six Counties that comprised the Orange State. Today, Catholics have moved up to 51 per cent and are expected to achieve 55 per cent of the electorate within the next five years. A border poll held in 2025 would probably see the pro-Union camp squeak home. But the one after that, in 2032 say, could prove the decider. Talks would open and by 2037 the deal would be struck.
While it is true that some Catholics, mostly aged 50 and above, are pro-British, which is to say, pro the NHS, pro the state pension and fearful of a rebirth of the Troubles, these have to be set against middle-class Unionists, including those who vote for the Alliance Party – now number three in the party hierarchy – who are prepared to contemplate Irish unity without fear of bringing on a heart attack or stroke.
Once the drip-drip exodus of Protestant graduates and others to London, Liverpool and Glasgow is factored in, the maths become compelling. Like bankruptcy, the drift towards unity could be slow, then quick.
Whether it could be achieved without a violent reaction from extremists on the Protestant/Loyalist side is something else. There are enclaves in Belfast, south and east Antrim and North Armagh whose inhabitants would (almost) rather die than submit to Dublin rule. Their acquiescence to any negotiated settlement will be essential if large-scale insurrection is to be avoided, and right now it is hard to see how this would be achieved. But voluntary emigration by die-hards would be part of the solution, as would a firm commitment to justice and order in the streets by Britain as the departing power and the Republic in its new sovereign role.
Which brings me to the attitude to all of this of the Irish people south and west of the current border. How ready are they to take on the Unionist rump and how accommodating are they willing to be in pursuit of their centuries-old dream? The answer hangs in the air. Nobody really knows. Polls show that unity remains firmly rooted in the DNA of the Republic. But so is the new prosperity and sense of ease with itself that marks out the present-day 26-county state.
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There are many living in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick who pay lip service to unity. They like to hear the old songs sung and stand respectfully when the 1916 Proclamation of Independence is read out every Easter in commemoration of the Rising. But are they honestly willing to embrace the culture, such as it is, of Protestant Ulster, as the price of fusion? As Irish citizens, they support gaelic football and hurling more than football and rugby. They salute the Tricolour (loathed by Loyalists) and belt out the national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, The Soldier’s Song, on grand sporting occasions. They glow with pride at the mere mention of River Dance and choose to believe, against all evidence, that the Irish Language is the truest expression of their gaelic identity. But above all that, they love the fact that Ireland has pulled itself up by its bootstraps since joining the EU and is now one of the richest countries of Europe. How ready will they be to subsidise the Black North, currently kept afloat only with an annual £10 billion subvention from the British Government?
For those who want unity, but (please God!) not yet, one of the issues is sure to be the sheer cost of the transfer. The EU and the US would step in, and Britain would surely play its part by honouring pension commitments as well as maintaining key subsidies, on a declining scale, for let us say the first ten years. But the transformation of Northern Ireland from being the poorest part of the UK to being at least roughly as prosperous as the existing Republic will not happen overnight. It will take time.
Which brings me to an intriguing question. The Irish banking crisis of 2008-2009 brought phase one of the Celtic Tiger to an abrupt end. Recovery from that nadir was moving along nicely until the emergence of Covid-19, which, as elsewhere, cost the Government a considerable fortune. But the underlying trend has been extraordinary. In 2022, with Covid moving into the rear mirror, the budget surplus reached €16.6 billion (£14.4bn) and the finance ministry expects this to be bettered in each of the next three years, until at least 2026. The British equivalent for 2022 would be a surplus of £187bn, whereas the reality was a deficit of some £125 billion.
Given that the current Dublin Government appears reluctant to boost spending by more than a few percentage points (giving rise to much public anger and resentment), the question arises, is it building up a sovereign wealth fund to be used, primarily, to pay for Irish unity? No one has said as much and there is an alternative explanation – that Ireland is following the Norwegian model and putting as much money aside as it can against the likelihood of future economic crises brought on by climate change and post-Covid pandemics. But one thing is sure. If unity does rise up the political agenda in the next few years, Ireland will be well prepared, at least in monetary terms.
Against all of the above, the possibility exists that the DUP will give up its post-Brexit boycott of Stormont and join a power-sharing executive made up of sensible nationalists, moderate unionists and those who don’t care much either way about the constitutional position. British citizens living in the province already have an entitlement to Irish passports and EU residency, and, uniquely, under the terms of the NI Protocol, confirmed by the Windsor Framework, enjoy free access to both the British and European markets. Some would argue they have the best of three worlds and would be fools to give it up. But who ever said the politics of Northern Ireland wasn’t a fool’s game?
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