In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin renewed its call for a border poll to bring about a united Ireland, and published a document detailing why it felt that this would be in the best interests of Northern Ireland’s economy, health and education. The Northern Ireland head of the party, Michelle O’Neill, said that the British government ‘…are continuing to refuse to listen to the views of the majority. Brexit would be a disaster for the economy and the people of Ireland.’ Although Protestant heartlands such as Antrim favoured Leave, Remain won by a clear margin in Northern Ireland. Add to the mix the fact that Catholics are on the cusp of outnumbering Protestants in the province, ending the seemingly perpetual unionist majority that formed the basis for Irish partition. Catholics already form the majority of those under 35, and 49% of children under 5 in Belfast, compared to just 36% Protestants in the capital. If demographics really are destiny, and recent events any indication, then it would seem that we are witnessing a historic reversal of the century old political bifurcation of Ireland. However, Northern Ireland is fascinatingly complex, and there is far more to it than these figures would suggest.
Since the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, Northern Irish politics at Stormont, site of the province’s devolved assembly, has grown to be dominated by the radical nationalist Sinn Féin, and strongly conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which have together displaced the traditional hegemony of moderate parties. This would point to a hardening of political division in Northern Ireland, and is difficult to square with the largely peaceful co-operation that has replaced the violence of the Troubles. However, when asked earlier this year if they would vote for Irish unification, just 43% of Northern Irish Catholics said they would do so, while a considerable 37% said they would vote to remain in the UK. When you remember that the Northern Irish population is split roughly down the middle (48% Protestant, 45% Catholic), and that the Protestant half favour remaining in the UK to the tune of 88%, that produces a huge majority in favour of the Union in Northern Ireland if the border poll was held anytime soon. Brexit has indeed caused a sharp rise in support for a united Ireland – from 17% to 22% – but this is obviously nowhere near a majority.
If this barrage of numbers leaves you scratching your head, you’re not alone. The fact is that religious background and voting intention are broadly interlinked in Northern Ireland, but voting for a nationalist party doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire for (immediate, at least) Irish unification. Why does such a large share of the Catholic, nationalist community favour remaining in the UK? Northern Ireland was formed to protect the largely Scottish-origin Protestant majority in 6 of the 9 counties of the northern Irish province of Ulster from what they somewhat accurately feared was to become a confessional state dominated by southern Catholics. However, the Northern Irish establishment itself created a system that blatantly discriminated against its large Catholic minority in nearly all walks of life, including through cultural, educational, housing and employment-related restrictions, and also electoral gerrymandering to produce artificial Protestant majorities at all levels of government. This harsh discrimination gave birth to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights marches of the 1960’s, and eventually contributed to the outbreak of the Troubles. Following the introduction of power-sharing and the peace of the last 19 years, Catholics have reaped the rewards of a system that is no longer blatantly rigged against them. They are joining the NI Civil Service in large numbers, the share of Catholics in the police has risen from a paltry 8% in 2001 to a healthier 30% in 2011, Catholics are far more likely to go to university, work white collar jobs, and to underline the point now make 40p more an hour compared to their Protestant counterparts. It doesn’t take a political genius to deduce that the best way to resign a long-aggrieved minority to the status quo is to make it feel part of and benefit from the system. As Catholics improve their economic and political lot, reversing the long Protestant domination in these spheres, they are less willing to upset the existing situation. Most of Northern Ireland’s imports come from, and exports go to other parts of the UK, and GP visits remain free in contrast to the south. Socio-economic considerations may trump identity for nationalists in any future poll, but a marked decline in living standards due to Brexit could cause the pendulum to swing more towards the direction of eventual reunification.
Another interesting aspect of identity in Northern Ireland is the increasing adoption by both Catholics and Protestants of a specific and shared Northern Irish identity, eschewing the wider Irish and British identities altogether. 20% of the whole population and 27% of Catholics say they are ‘Northern Irish only’ instead of British or Irish, which alarms some nationalist politicians as it seems to represent a normalisation of the status quo. Indeed, many hardline nationalists deplore the name ‘Northern Ireland’, which they feel is a gerrymandered statelet created to perpetuate British oppression and settler-state colonialism. An oft-neglected section of the population in regards to discussions of identity, but one which I predict will come to increasingly greater prominence, is composed of immigrants and their descendants. It is therefore telling to observe that 47% of Northern Irish Asians identify as British, which by virtue of being a more diverse label is often easier for non-white minorities to adopt. Just 8% of Asians identified as Irish in the last census, and the remainder chose different labels. The rock-solid support for Sinn Féin in the 2017 UK General Election, in which it took 7 seats and became the sole (albeit abstentionist) voice of Irish nationalism at Westminster, belies a deeper issue: Protestants may consider the Union their primary issue, but the Catholic and nationalist community is starting to become more and more concerned with social issues. The inroads made by the People Before Profit Alliance, a socialist party that expressly states that it is neither orange (Protestant/Unionist) nor green (Catholic/Nationalist) in traditional Sinn Féin heartlands such as Derry and West Belfast was an example of this shift.
At this point, it’s pertinent to add a necessary disclaimer: everything is up in the air at the moment. It is impossible to foretell what Brexit will mean to the island of Ireland, and whether it will dramatically increase support for a united Ireland. In 2012, just 2 years before the Scottish independence referendum, support for sovereignty sat at a meagre 29%. By 2014, after a vigorous campaign by the Yes side, it had grown to 45%. If Sinn Féin manages to get its border poll, will it manage a similar increase in vote share for independence? Will possible Scottish independence lead to a ripple on effect in NI? At the last election at Stormont, Sinn Féin, whose leader Gerry Adams makes references to the ‘English queen’ and ‘British government’ to emphasise their foreignness, a party which also refuses to sit in the House of Commons as it considers it a foreign parliament, came within a single seat of becoming the largest party in the NI Assembly. Given the demographic trends, it is not inconceivable that there will be a Sinn Féin First Minister in Northern Ireland in the near future, representing a political movement that ranks the undoing of Irish partition as amongst its top priorities. Sinn Féin also contests elections in the Republic as part of its pitch as an all-Ireland party, and given electoral trends may hold the balance in a future election in the south. Sinn Féin in power in both Dublin and Belfast therefore looks plausible, a nightmare for unionist politicians but one that would trigger unforeseeable political consequences and make a border poll much more likely to happen. Protestant opposition to unification in the near future will be very difficult to overcome in any scenario, nigh insurmountable if polls are to be believed, and Sinn Féin’s talk of federal solutions and accommodating British identity in a united Ireland is intended put unionists at ease by assuring them of their cultural and political rights in a 32 county state.
Two final observations: if unionism or nationalism are to succeed in Northern Ireland, and clearly there is hypothetical fertile ground for unionism at least given that a large share of Catholics are, although they would not consider themselves as such, ‘soft unionists’, then as ideologies both need to expand their support bases. The DUP, the pro-Brexit, leading unionist party, has strong connections to evangelical Protestant groups and is very socially conservative, alienating many Catholics and indeed many in the rest of the UK. By contrast, Sinn Féin, despite its historic links to physical force republicanism and IRA terrorism, now advocates an ostensibly secular, internationalist Irish nationalism, and has had its past attempts to have gay marriage legalised repeatedly shot down by the DUP at Stormont. Both parties attract pitifully little support from across the political aisle due to their background, policies and leadership, and in this regard the eclipsing of the moderate SDLP (nationalist) and UUP (unionist) parties is particularly regrettable.
Also, given that the status quo, i.e., Northern Irish membership in the UK, seems to be fairly certain in the short to medium term, the near-total exclusion of Northern Ireland from the political mainstream is both deeply unfair and totally unjustifiable. Tony Blair’s predecessor and successor as leader of the Labour party were both Scottish, and there are Scots and Welsh members of the current cabinet. The 3 major UK-wide parties have historically forbidden local branches from organising and contesting elections in Northern Ireland, so as to avoid getting involved in the messy sectarian politics of the province, and (in UK Labour’s case at least) out of principle given the contention over Northern Ireland’s disputed existence. In the past, Labour had advised Northern Irish supporters to lend their weight to the moderate nationalist SDLP, and adopted a platform supporting a united Ireland until the 1990’s. The Liberal Democrats advise Northern Irish supporters to vote for the Alliance party, which is non-sectarian. The Conservatives have relatively recently organised a local branch, but one which has made little electoral headway. David Cameron emphasised the need to re-integrate Northern Ireland into the British polity by stating: ‘Why are there great Ulstermen and women on our television screens, in our boardrooms and in our military but not in our Cabinet? The semi-detached status of Northern Ireland politics needs to end.’ In 2003 British Labour lifted its ban on Northern Irishmen applying for membership, and this year promised to reconsider its current ban on candidates contesting elections under the Labour banner in the province. Northern Ireland, whether one likes it or not, is likely to remain part of the Union for the immediate future. As long as it does, it deserves to be understood, heard and represented much better.