Sean Fear says don’t bet on a United Ireland any time soon
Irish Nationalism has proved to be the most successful, patient, and subtle form of local nationalism within these Islands. Few people would have bet on an end to British rule in Ireland in 1800, yet by 1900, most tiers of government outside Ulster were de facto controlled by Irish Nationalists, and by 1921, most of the country was independent.
The exception of course, was in the Six Counties that became Northern Ireland. The irresistible force that was Irish Nationalism encountered the immoveable object that was Ulster Unionism. From 1921 up until the start of the Troubles, Ulster Unionists enjoyed total political dominance in Northern Ireland, with an inbuilt 2:1 majority of Protestants over Roman Catholics.
That changed in the late 1960s. One can argue about the extent to which the Civil Rights Movement was a front for hardline Irish Republicanism, but there is no doubt it did much to discredit Ulster Unionism throughout the United Kingdom. The savage campaign that was waged by the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s gave every impression that Northern Irelandâ€™s place in the United Kingdom would shortly be brought to an end, particularly once Ted Heathâ€™s government invited the PIRA leadership for talks
However, that is not how events turned out. Northern Irelandâ€™s position within the United Kingdom is probably more secure now than it was thirty seven years ago. An equally savage campaign of terror by loyalists, combined with relentless pressure from the security forces, led PIRA to abandon any hope of a quick military victory by the late 1970s, and ultimately, to bring their campaign to an end in the mid-1990s.
For a time, it seemed that demography might succeed where violence had failed. Between 1961 and 2001, the Roman Catholic share of Northern Irelandâ€™s population rose from 34% to 44%. This was mirrored by the rise in the Nationalist vote across the Province, culminating in a vote share of 45.4%, in the European elections of 1999.
Just 10 years earlier, their share was 34%. Throughout the 1990s, the combination of a growing Catholic population, a greater willingness on the part of Catholics to vote, and a decreasing willingness on the part of Protestants to vote, seemed to be powering Nationalists to electoral victory.
With the benefit of hindsight, it now looks as though the 1999 result represents the high water mark of Irish Nationalist voting strength within Northern Ireland. What is useful about the Euro election results is that they treat the Province as a single constituency, and are conducted under PR. Thus, there is no need for tactical voting, and it is fairly easy to gauge the voting strength of the Nationalist and Unionist blocs.
Over the past ten years, the gap between Unionist and Nationalist support has remained unchanged, at 7%. Both Unionist and Nationalist voting strength has declined slightly, over that period, to the benefit of parties like Alliance and the Greens, but that is bad news for Nationalists, as voters for non-aligned parties are mostly small u unionists; that is, they donâ€™t identify with bodies like the Orange Order, but they do wish Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, if only on the basis of better the devil you know.
For a time, it looked as though the stunning economic success of the Irish Republic, compared to the sluggish performance of Northern Irelandâ€™s economy, heavily dependent as it is on public spending, might prove a means of persuading Unionists to join the Irish Republic. Unfortunately, that seems most unlikely now that Eireâ€™s economy looks set to shrink by more than 10%, at the same time as high levels of public spending ensure that Northern Irelandâ€™s recession will be much milder.
Itâ€™s hard to see what could now lead Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom. If perhaps, the SNP were to win a referendum on Scottish independence, that would be the game-changing event that would lead Unionists to change their minds about their position within the United Kingdom, but unless that happens, itâ€™s hard to see what else might do so.
Sean Fear was a PB regular for several years with his weekly “Friday Slot”