A United Ireland: Not Guaranteed, But Possible Through Dialogue…

What is it about passionate nationalists that when they get less than a third of people in favour of their nationalist project, they still insist they are driving on to victory? That was the situation according to the second big Irish Times/Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South(ARINS) poll on Irish unity earlier this month, which showed 51% of those polled in Northern Ireland in favour of remaining in the UK (up 1% from last year) against 30% in favour of joining the Republic (up 3%).1 [In 2019 Catalan nationalists went so far as to declare independence after 39.5% of registered voters in a low turn-out voted in favour in an unconstitutional referendum].

In Northern Ireland, three-fifths of Catholics said they would vote for Irish unity, while four-fifths of Protestants said they would vote to stay in the UK. There is a far larger proportion of pro-UK Catholics (one in five) than pro-unification Protestants (one in 25). My guess is that an opinion poll at any time in the last 50 years would have come up with similar results, as it would have done in the Republic, where the Irish Times poll found that 64% would vote for unity in a referendum.

None of this stopped the political scientists overseeing the poll, led by Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania (an avowed nationalist), wheeling out the concept of ‘losers’ consent’: extraordinarily, the ‘losers’ in this case are the Northern Protestants who make up the great bulk of the majority who want to stay part of the UK (51% support) and the ‘consent’ is their willingness to acquiesce in an eventual united Ireland (30% support).

The academics made great play of the finding that the proportion of northern Protestants who said they would find Irish unification “almost impossible to accept” had gone down from 32% to 23%. Maybe one reason for this is the mess that Northern Ireland is currently in largely due to the DUP’s 22 month boycott of the Stormont institutions. As that shrewd observer, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy put it, the movement towards support for Irish unity (however slow and marginal) “makes it all the more mind-bogglingly inexplicable that the DUP is not trying to make Northern Ireland work…if Northern Ireland doesn’t work, then wavering middle ground voters are likely to consider other arrangements that might work, potentially including a united Ireland.” If this is the DUP’s strategy, he says, it is “bonkers”.2

He has a good point. Most people – in Northern Ireland as elsewhere – don’t care much about the major constitutional changes that politicians, journalists and academics pore over so endlessly. They want continued peace and prosperity and the chance to get good jobs, live healthy lives and see their children well educated (for these reasons they supported the 1998 Good Friday Agreement). If Northern Ireland as it is now can’t provide those things, they might just begin to consider what for most Northern Protestants has for so long been the great, much-feared unmentionable – Irish unity.

Those politicians, journalists and academics might spend their time better by looking at some of the findings from the 2021 Northern Ireland census. The Belfast social researcher Paul Nolan has written a fascinating article on this which will appear in the near future on the ARINS website.3

Nolan highlights a number of ironies: the first is that “100 years after partition Northern Ireland, created to guarantee a permanent Protestant majority, had ended up with a Catholic population larger than the Protestant one. Added to that, the percentage who self-categorised unequivocally as ‘British Only’ was down to 31.9% – a smaller percentage than the beleaguered Catholic population at the time of partition.”

The rise in the Catholic population in recent years has been gradual, if speeding up slightly in the past decade: 40.3% in 2001; 40.8% in 2011; 42.3% in 2021. In contrast, the fall in the Protestant population has been dramatic: from 53.1% in 2001 to 43.5% in 2021. Nolan speculates that this could be simply because more Protestants are leaving the North (it is difficult to know because there are no figures for population movement within the UK), but stresses that this subject needs more research.

However he does not foresee an imminent Catholic majority: “The expectation that there will be a Catholic majority in any foreseeable future would only be true if there was already a Catholic majority in the age cohorts 0-14 and 15-39 and, as we have seen, although it comes very close (over 48% in both cohorts), it is still not in sight because the upward trajectory has levelled off. Secondly, it cannot be assumed that all Catholics aspire to Irish unity. Census ’21 shows that only 33.3% [of NI people in general] identify as Irish to any degree. Ten percent of Catholics opt for a British identity. Even those who identify as Irish are not necessarily going to vote to exit the devolved arrangement secured in the 1998 Agreement. The benefit of the Agreement to middle-class nationalists has been that it allows them to be culturally Irish while enjoying the benefits of UK citizenship. This has proved to be of durable appeal.”

In terms of national identity, the picture is complicated by the Northern census allowing people to choose combined, or hybrid, identities (British only; Irish only; Northern Irish only; British and Northern Irish; Irish and Northern Irish; British, Irish and Northern Irish; British and Irish; English only/Scottish only/Welsh only, and Other). Nevertheless the picture here for unionists is “pitiless”, says Nolan, with those declaring themselves ‘British only’ falling by eight points from 39.9% in 2011 to 31.9% in 2021, while those self-declaring as ‘Irish only’ rose from 25.3% to 29.1%. Perhaps even more significantly, below the age of 40 the ratios reverse: for example, in the 15-39 age band it is 32.1% ‘Irish Only’ versus 25.6% ‘British Only’.

The most popular identity when combined with another identity is Northern Irish, which features in 31.5% of hybrid identities, not far behind ‘Irish plus’. “The Irish Plus identity has also increased, from 28.4% to 33.3%. While this may be considered a substantial increase, it is still nine percentage points behind the number of people who give their religion as Catholic (42.3%), and far below what the proponents of a border poll had expected. No one could see the Census ’21 results as compelling evidence that the time has now arrived for a Secretary of State to call a border referendum, as required by the Agreement, at a point where ‘it appears likely that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland would back a united Ireland.’ One-third is not a majority in anybody’s book.”

Somewhat surprisingly, 13.5% of the population of Northern Ireland consists of ‘newcomers’ born outside its borders; half of these (124,000) were born outside Great Britain and Ireland, and 57,000 outside the EU. Many of these people also declared themselves ‘Other Religion’ (i.e. not Protestant or Catholic). Nolan finds a heavy leaning among such people towards a British identity.

He highlights another, connected irony: that “while the prospect of a border poll has had a polarising effect, with heightened emotions on both sides, the numerical equilibrium between northern Catholics and Protestants means that the deciding votes in any future poll would be cast by those with least interest in the debate: newcomer communities and those with no religion.”

Nolan concludes: “If there is a lesson in the census for unionism, it is that with support for British identity in decline it must reach beyond its traditional heartlands and galvanise the support from other lineages: specifically, newcomer communities, those with no religion, and those Catholics who self-categorise as British but do not identify with Orange culture. If there is a lesson for nationalism, it is to cease to believe in predestination. Despite what is said by politicians, celebrities and church leaders, a united Ireland is not inevitable. Saying so does not make it so. It can only happen when sufficient numbers of people want it to happen. Both nationalism and unionism need to use persuasion if they want to move beyond the present impasse.”

Persuasion? That’s the really hard part. The most convincing persuaders will decide the issue: nationalists persuading unionists of the merits of unity; unionists persuading nationalists of the merits of the Union. A large part of it will depend on how the rise and rise of the Republic as an economic powerhouse will be sustained (and whether Southerners are prepared to pay more taxes and change their precious symbols for the sake of unity), and how the decline of Britain will be continued or reversed. It’s going to be a longish journey.

PS The most astonishing illustration of social change in Northern Ireland, as mentioned by Nolan, is the estimate by the BBC that last year’s Pride March in Belfast had 60,000 participants, while the 12th July Orange parade in the city two weeks earlier had attracted only 10,000!

1 Poll findings are in the Irish Times, 2 and 4 December

2 ’A dysfunctional North makes a united Ireland seem more attractive’, Irish Times, 16 December

3 ’The Imprint of Finality? Partition and Census Enumeration’

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