48, 48, and 48 – those are the nightmare numbers for Unionism. Not necessarily for the Union, but for Unionism the political ideology as we have understood it for the past century or so. In the 2011 Assembly election, only 48% of the population voted for Unionist candidates, interpreting that term as generously as possible. In the 2011 Census, only 48% of the population were classifiable as ‘Protestant’ by community background, even given the statisticians’ remit of allocating the non-religious to their community of origin by any means possible. And in the same census, just 48% of the population identified itself as British in any way, even when given the opportunity to mix their Britishness with either or both of Irish and Northern Irish identities.
All three of those figures are set to decrease in the years to come. To put it as bluntly as possible, the Protestant population tends to be older and the Catholic and non-classifiable populations tend to be younger. Short of convincing the Unionist population to ‘breed for victory’, committing ethnic cleansing on a Rwandan scale or convincing Catholics and liberal Protestants to vote Unionist for the first time, there isn’t much Unionism can do about this. Option 1 is unlikely to prove popular, Option 2 is (I hope) off the cards and as for Option 3 – how credible, if they are being honest with themselves, do Unionists think Peter Robinson’s ‘hug a Catholic’ Party Conference speech looks in the cold light of six weeks of flag riots?
Unionism is going to have to come to terms with the fact that it now has minority status in Northern Ireland, the largest minority in a region of political and religious minorities. Yet the most senior DUP politicians are still attempting to hoodwink the party’s base into thinking that a return to majority Unionism is possible. Both Nigel Dodds on BBC NI’s The View and Peter Robinson in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph’s Liam Clarke claimed this week that better voter registration and higher turnout was the only way to get the Union Flag on the City Hall every day of the year.
I would like to think that Robinson and Dodds are both smart enough to know this is delusional. In the 2011 Belfast City Council elections the Unionist vote was only 36%. Thanks to the boundary changes to the City, which take the particular and peculiar form they do because Peter Robinson was determined to preserve his legacy in Castlereagh, a further percentage point, at least, will be shaved off that figure next time. Dunmurry Cross voted 82% Nationalist in 2011, for example, and the most strongly Unionist bits are staying in Lisburn.
Gilnahirk/Tullycarnet, Belvoir and the bits of Castlereagh within the ring road won’t balance that out, especially when they contain two Alliance fortress heartlands, Wynchurch and Gilnahirk, and pockets of decent SDLP support.
Demographic changes will probably knock a further 1-2% off that figure. So Unionism starts the campaign for the slightly enlarged new Belfast City Council from a base of 33-34%. Even if we indulge for a moment the fantasy that there will be heroic voter registration efforts, epic Unionist turnout and a collapse of the Alliance vote, there is simply no way that Unionists will gain a majority of seats in Belfast at the next election.
And in any case, as any smart West Belfast Sinn Féin backroom boy could tell Unionists, those who are difficult to register are also difficult to get out come polling day. Registered non-voters are mainly utterly disaffected with the shambles that is Northern Ireland party politics – ask the SDLP and Sinn Féin activists who spent years obsessing about long term non-voters in West Belfast before the 1997 General Election. And the Alliance vote isn’t going to collapse – 12.6% in 2011 was a high water mark for the yellow peril in Belfast recently, but other than the 2001 and 2005 elections where Alliance was squeezed almost to oblivion across NI, the absolute floor of Alliance support in the City is over 9%. Much of that 12.6% is anything but ‘soft unionist’ – of course some of it is, but some of it while definitely pro-Union is equally anti-Unionist identity politics, and some of it is decidedly pale green, especially in North and South Belfast.
Indeed, the only serious question about political control of Belfast City Council is whether or not Nationalists can take outright control of the City or whether Alliance retains the balance of power. Nationalists have a great chance of gaining an outright majority in Belfast, ironically aided by Peter Robinson’s obsession with keeping Castlereagh intact. Had Dundonald and the Four Winds/Glencregagh/Cairnshill area come into the city, as logic would have dictated, Nationalist control of Belfast would have been delayed for decades. Instead, those areas were lumped in with Lisburn. Ironically, Unionism’s only hope of retaining some measure of influence in the City is dependent on it failing to “Smash the Alliance Party” as promised.
Welcome to the Northern Ireland that won’t vote itself out of the Union but won’t give Unionism majority support. It is not difficult to envisage a scenario in 10-15 years time where, as is already the case in Belfast, not only does Alliance hold the balance of power in the Assembly, but Nationalists outnumber Unionists. I was surprised Unionism held on to an overall Assembly majority in 2011, but at least two UUP seats, one in Upper Bann and one in South Down, remain extremely vulnerbale to Nationalists and demographics are shifting. Any reduction to 5 seats per constituency will simply end Unionism’s majority status in the Assembly overnight – UUP MLAs were ‘last man in’ in a lot of places and Mike Nesbitt’s party will be slaughtered if there is a reduction in the number of Assembly seats.
Responsible leadership would involve talking to people honestly about the implications of all this. Trimble may have secured the Union for the foreseeable future in 1998, but he did not, nor could he, secure the nature of what Northern Ireland would look like within that Union. The DUP did not alter that reality one jot at St. Andrews. Nor could they.
The Union is now dependent on ‘pro-Union Catholics’ and detribalised liberals from Protestant backgrounds. Neither of those groups tends to be impressed by ‘Loyalist culture’. Peter Robinson’s fantasy of ‘pro-Union Catholics’ seems to imply they are terribly Vatikantreu religious conservatives, itching to support DUP policies on abortion and homosexuality, and falling over themselves to sing ‘God Save The Queen’ at Remembrance Day events. In reality, they tend to be young, secular, probably support Celtic and the Republic of Ireland football team, are hostile to and feel threatened by expressions of Loyalism, and don’t feel British – however happy they are for the Brits to keep paying the bills for this economic basket case, especially if they get the NHS and the BBC thrown in as a ‘swappable’. Rory McIlroy may wave an Ulster Flag when he wins a golf tournament, and young Nationalists may in growing numbers belt out ‘Stand Up For The Ulstermen’ at Ravenhill, but none of them will be cheering on processions on the Twelfth. If they haven’t managed to escape to Burtonport or Gümbet, they’ll be sitting at home fuming on Facebook about why they live in an 18th Century political sewer. So will a large and growing section of the PUL community. And so will pretty much all migrants from Great Britain – no matter how flag-waving and nationalistic they may be by the standards of Esher or Doncaster.
This is the problem for Unionism – its central political aim is only deliverable with the support of people who mainly revile its central cultural aims. Unionism, for long copperfastened by an impregnable electoral majority, simply doesn’t understand how to do politics as a minority. For a century, success in Unionist politics has been about not being labelled as a Lundy. Now it needs to build coalitions, electorally or otherwise, with people who would wear the Lundy badge with pride. It has not made a good start to this. Its handling of the flag issue has been particularly inept.
The flying of the Union Flag on designated days – including, this week, Kate Middleton’s birthday – should have been a stinging defeat for Republicanism in Belfast. This is a city where Nationalists could well be on the verge of outright control. Nationalism’s representatives, however, including a load of ex-Ra men, agreed to fly the Butcher’s Apron according to Betty Windsor’s rules, because the reality is that NI remains part of the UK for the foreseeable. Smart Unionism would have characterised this as Belfast Republicanism running up the white flag of surrender.
But Unionism doesn’t have smart leadership. So they spun what could have been sold, more honestly, as a triumph of the outnumbered Men of Gideon into a stinging defeat. This mainly because the DUP wanted East Belfast back, the UVF wanted the Historical Enquiries Team off its back, and the UUP isn’t going to stick its neck out in that context, is it?
At one time, such a neo-Redmondite view of NI would have caused outrage and vitriolic denunciations from Nationalists. Ironically, the flags debate has made Nationalism, as obsessed with the culture wars as Unionism, relaxed about the defeat, for at least a generation and a half, of its central political aim. I mean, United Ireland? Off the cards for a generation or two, isn’t it? I’ll see your Census figures (20% stating only Northern Irish, disproportionately from Catholic backgrounds) and raise you Rory McIlroy and his Ulster Flag and all those very Catholic but not especially Nationalist Alliance voters and non-voters in places like Bangor and Carrick.
And yet, Nationalists don’t care because they get to assume the political posture that always gives them most pleasure – looking down their noses at just how bloody stupid the Prods are! And, boy, are Nationalists laughing at the Prods just at the moment! Especially away from Greater Belfast, where in a lot of rural Catholic areas, Unionist politicians and Loyalist culture barely register as existing and roads are not being blocked, Nationalists are sitting back and having fun. In the moment when Northern Nationalism’s ultimate defeat should be being revealed – they’re too busy laughing at Unionists to care.
All those people in places like Carrickmore and Pomeroy – and I bet when the full internals come out, we’ll see they tend to be young and well-educated – ticking the Northern Irish box. Even I, shameless neo-Redmondite that I am, didn’t see that coming and I should have. The Northern Ireland of 2013 is a very different entity than either traditional Nationalism or traditional Unionism wanted to believe. And there is no reason to think it will vote itself out of the UK for 50 years at least.
And, yet, I wonder if Unionism, in squandering political capital on unwinnable cultural battles, is capable of marching itself into a United Ireland? I never believed it could possibly come in my lifetime. Now, even as the smallest n of nationalists, I don’t think its impossible that if I outlive my reasonable life expectancy as a fat pipe-smoker who likes a drink, I might see a United Ireland before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I don’t think it’s likely to happen, but it isn’t impossible. Unionism really is that ineptly led, and who knows what changes a rapidly changing global scene, as well as the consequences of the most rapid burst of immigration since the Vikings, might have on both the UK and the Republic.
Loyalists are rioting because a bunch of Shinners voted for the Union Jack to fly over the City Hall according to the British Crown’s recommendations! Any political or cultural group so incapable of telling the difference between victory and defeat is capable of losing everything, even when there’s no reason for it to.
Unionism has a shrinking 48% of the vote locked up for the Union. There are more than enough votes for the Union among the other 52% of the population that it is secure – for the time being. That 52% is growing, however. Is Unionism alienating votes for a future border poll among that ever rising majority?
It certainly has alienated me, over almost a year of unbridled tribalism and sectarianism. We had the disgraceful decision at Girdwood that condemns my neighbours in the New Lodge to a further generation of overcrowding and marginality. We had a disgraceful display of sectarianism outside my local Roman Catholic Church, which would not be tolerated outside St. Bernard’s in Lingfield, where my partner lives. We had the local MP act as an apologist for that sectarianism; in the unlikely event that Sam Gyimah pulled a stunt like that, he would lose one of the safest Tory seats in the Home Counties in a trice. We then had a McCarthyite campaign against a pro-Union political party, because it isn’t culturally pure enough for Unionism.
When this campaign stirred the mob into violent attacks against property and people, a senior cabinet Minister said the Alliance Party was itself to blame. His career would be over, in Westminster, Leinster House, Holyrood or Cardiff Bay, but in Stormont, this isn’t a serious issue. The British Prime Minister and Cabinet have failed to respond as a major British regional metropolis has been paralysed, where minority communities (like the Short Strand) and minority political representatives (like the Bowers in Bangor) have been physically attacked, where politically motivated murder has been attempted on police officers and where public property has been destroyed.
People in favour of the Union continually try to point its rights and advantages to me. I can obviously see the money angle, but right now that isn’t paying me enough to live in a peripheral political sewer where the national government clearly doesn’t care if the mob takes over the streets of my city. I respect your Britishness, and any state I would wish to live in will cherish and support it as a legitimate part of the Irish nation, but I can’t buy into it. As far as I can see, the main ‘advantages’ of living in a larger United Kingdom are involvement in pointless foreign wars and an economy skewed towards the City of London. Meanwhile, I don’t get the ‘rights’ of being British like being able to have my marriage recognised by the state or not having my local Roman Parish Church (from which I converted quite happily 16 years ago) treated as an enemy football mascot instead of a place dedicated to the worship of Jesus Christ. If that it is what it means to live in the United Kingdom, you can stick it where the sun don’t shine.
Sorry to be so blunt, but I want out of the United Kingdom as quickly as possible. I know it’s lovely when you have a decent income in London or Surrey. I have spent and continue to spend an enormous part of my adult life there. But if Unionism means anything it means that Belfast is as British as Finchley. And frankly, on that score, Britishness #epicfails.
Many people I respect will disagree with me, and I mean no disrespect to them or their country – I realise that real existierender Britishness falls well short of what many Britishers would like it to be. I rejoice as much as anyone at what it is and means for Mo Farah to carry the Union Flag as he celebrates Olympic Gold, when English Cricketers stuff the arrogant Aussies and, by God, I fall to my knees in honour of what it meant for my partner to fight frightened skirmishes with the Japanese in Burma as a young man and sleep standing up exhausted against a tree, night after night. I have no wish to disrespect the flag he fought for as he himself fought death from malaria and dysentery on a Bangladeshi beach in 1943. There is a best of British – from Rolls-Royce jet engines to The Italian Job. As an Irishman of nationalist and anti-monarchist instincts, neither I nor my views have been treated with anything less than respect and willingness to understand in the deepest Home Counties Shires. Sadly, that is not what I get in Belfast. There is a worst of British and it is right on my doorstep.
So, when the inevitable border poll inevitably comes, I will be voting for a United Ireland. Of course, it won’t be an actually united Ireland, and it will have new stupidities foisted on it by Gombeen men, but could it really be any worse than this? If Unionism loses any prospect of me voting for the Union, as someone who loves not only the BBC and the NHS, but the Church of England and long shadows on Cricket greens, indomitable suburbs and inner-city multicultural Britain, Vaughan-Williams and Asian Dub Foundation, then people who believe in the Union really need to ask themselves about the quality of leadership they’re getting.