Archive for September 26th, 2018

This is the text of a speech I made at QUB last week, launching The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics.


book coverI have already saved myself a bit of work and possible embarrassment with this book. For John Coakley and Tony Gallagher have done the research for me into demographic shift, political attitudes and the evolution of catholic education.

What we have here is a collection of perspectives on what we call the catholic community. It is diverse enough to be of value to thinkers and writers in a wide range of fields, from memoir and biography – from Connal Parr and Stephen Hopkins –  to the breast beating of republicans from Niall Gilmartin an Anthony McIntyre – to the analyses of where we are and where we have come from – from Claire Pearson on Abortion rights to Brian Hanley’s accounts of how the expectations of refugees from west Belfast clashed with the good intentions of those who made haste to help them in 1971.

The first thing to be said about this book is that it belongs on the shelf of every serious writer and commentator on Northern Ireland, the academic, the journalist or the blogger.

And the conception itself seems to recognise the diverse appetite out there for sound research by drawing together writers from different fields.

My main point is this: The Catholic community will decide the future of the Union and therefore has to be understood and engaged with by anyone interested in preserving the Union or dispensing with it.

Some people have not caught onto this yet. Theresa May has.

In a conversation she was reported to have had with Jacob Rees Mogg last year, she is said to have expressed a fear that the ‘moderate nationalists’ – her phrase – would react to a hard Brexit by opting for a united Ireland.

More recently, Newsnight reported that the Secretary of State – who should perhaps read this book too and a few others I could suggest – had decided not to call an election to the Assembly because a nationalist majority would leave her with no argument against a border poll.

On the other hand we have David Trimble and others arguing that the fear of a growing demand for a united Ireland is being whipped up by Sinn Fein and that it has no substance.

Unionism, it strikes me, is being uncommonly blithe about the changing context, having arguably over-reacted in the past when it thought that the IRA was a real threat to the integrity of the UK, an estimation of the clout of republicans which was shared only by republicans themselves.

So the people who panicked in the past say there is no need to panic now, though the circumstances are radically different. But it is good they are not panicking. It’s not so good that they are not noticing the breadth of change.

The first big change is that the unionist majority has gone. The proportionate rise in the catholic population that was the bogey of much unionism throughout the history of Northern Ireland, has arrived.

Coakley tells us it is expected that the 2021 census will reflect a catholic majority.

This means that the Protestant Ulster that Ian Paisley senior sought to defend has gone.

The argument that the Union must be preserved to prevent protestant Ulster being absorbed into its Romish neighbour is obsolete. It is dead, an ex-argument.

So one of the traditional props of the Union, the call to arms in defence of the faith is now only of historic interest, as irrelevant to our current politics as the prestige of Catholic bishops, who used to be received on the Falls Road and in Andersonstown or Creggan with bunting and cheering crowds. My mother, if she had ever been allowed close enough proximity to a bishop would have been expected to kneel before him and kiss his ring.

Now, at best, their eminences can hope for a bit of normal civility, and they mightn’t even get that.

It may indeed be a sign of a new generosity in the unionist community that it has not reacted with alarm to this new circumstance, that the Union requires catholic support to continue, and trusts so lightly that that support is there.

There can be no Union now other than one endorsed cross community.

Yet there is a sectarian assumption at work there too, that Identity matters more to protestants than it does to catholics.

Indeed, Dr McIntyre alludes to this as a reality in his chapter where he says that unionists are much more concerned to defend the union than nationalists are to get rid of it.

The implication is that unionists preserve the Union out of love for it, a passionate sense that their identity relies on it. Catholics are different – they are more concerned about what side their bread is buttered on.

But this diagnosis is tested by Brexit and the insult that our Irishness is of no consequence when an English nationalist majority makes a decision, without our support, to overhaul all our relationships, The presumption is made – wrongly, I think – that a few practical concerns about trade across a frictionless border – if they can be met – go to the heart of the problem.

We will see. I don’t know. We may be discovering, through this experiment, aspects of the character of the Northern catholic community that we hadn’t weighed up before, like a possible preference among many – enough to make a difference – for mending relations in the North over uniting the island into a single jurisdiction. Who of us doesn’t feel more at home in Ballymena than in Ballinasloe?

But that is not the only question before us.

A conjunction of phenomena has emerged like a startling planetary alignment.

Catholic Ireland is being dissolved. Even if there still was a protestant majority, and if Paisley was at his thunderous best, he could no longer claim that the Republic is a catholic state being manipulated by the Papacy.

In fact, the idea is so laughable that some of you may need reminded that this was a powerful conviction in play during the Troubles period.  The Rev Martin Smyth, later Grand Master of the Orange Order and an Ulster Unionist MP, told a Vanguard rally in the Ormeau Park in 1972 that the killing would stop immediately if the Bishop of Rome would put his house in order.

At the same time as we have a loosening of the grip of the church over Irish catholics, appalled by abuse scandals and entering into the general European trend towards secularisation, we have a counter force in the North in the form of the DUP, determined to resist same sex marriage and abortion law reform.

So, at a  time when we might have seen chauvinistic rages settle down, we have a new dividing line.

And this has led to disaffection with devolution in the North among catholics and nationalists.

We can trace the collapse of Stormont to the RHI scandal and the denial of a stand alone Irish language act, but if we look to why so many people don’t seem to care if it comes back or not, among catholics and nationalists, distaste of the DUP and a lack of enthusiasm for restoring to them the power to block social reform is, I think, primary.

I suspect even Sinn Fein has been taken by surprise by this.

So forces are in play that were not in play during the Troubles, the demographic shift, secularisation North and South and an aversion to the social conservatism of the DUP.

And Brexit.

Which might turn out fine.

A DUP adviser tells me that they expect that everything will be OK after next March, people will realise it was all a fuss over very little and then we can settle back into routine politics.

Implied in this is a confidence that the catholic community can be relied on, in sufficient numbers, to endorse the Union – though never calling themselves Unionists – and we’ll put Stormont back up and either make a new bigger deal to secure it, or hobble on to the next breakdown.

But crucially, if the protestant majority was the prop that secured the Union for a century, cross community support is the only prop that can sustain it further, and that means that the de facto unionists in the catholic community have to be kept onside.

Recognising that Catholic community support from now on must be a cornerstone of the Union, or there will be no Union,  requires an appeal to the northern catholic sense of identity in a future that may not include a British economy that is stronger than an Irish one.

Who can say our butter won’t be on the other side of the piece in a decade from now?

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