The collapsing scenery of NI’s politics

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It’s time to stop patronizing loyalists and tell the truth.

You don’t haul down a flag in victory any more than you decommission weapons after winning a war. Trying to convince the angriest elements of the loyalist community otherwise only undermines the credibility of leaders and commentators alike.

Yet politics is not an absolutist business which is why the current chaos is absolutely daft.

Look: Some you win and… for those you’re gonna lose, there’s a way to do it gracefully while even advancing core strategic goals. Failure to understand this is a failure of leadership.

Yes, the Union Flag coming down is indicative of changing Nationalist-Unionist power dynamics that are now less favorable to unionists than at any time since the foundation of the Northern Ireland state. But losing absolute power should not be equated with powerlessness and it is the failure to recognize the difference that explains the collapsing scenery currently characterizing Unionist politics.

The appearence of tactical advances by Nationalists should not be equated – by unionists or nationalists – with a strategy for achieving an end to Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. Such a Nationalist strategy doesn’t yet exist. We know this because any serious strategy for building a united Ireland can be measured against the stability of Northern Ireland: an unstable Northern Ireland will never be welcomed into a 32 county state.

So why did Nationalists trigger a vote on an issue likely to destabilize Northern Ireland?

Consider the flag vote in the context of counter-insurgency 101: Avoid conditions where the mainstream aligns with the extremist fringe. Nationalists responded aggressively, fearfully but with formidable tactical adroitness in response to Peter Robinson’s tentative steps towards non-sectarian advocacy for the union. The flag fiasco is essentially a textbook case of counter-counter insurgency. Like an exhausted boxer who clings to his opponent for fear of an open contest breaking out, Nationalists closed down the challenge posed by embryonic non-sectarian union advocacy by inviting Unionists to revert to type.

And boy have Unionists responded. “We’ll see your panic and raise you hysteria!”

Today’s protests, like the more vicious 1996 Drumcree ‘line in the sand’ episode, may fizzle out but long-term Unionist self-sabotage shows little sign of abating because its underlying dynamic remains unresolved: Unionism lacks a post-Agreement strategy for dealing with change and challenge.

The essence of the Belfast Agreement was not a constitutional settlement so much as a settling of the terms and means by which Nationalist challenges to the constitution would be pursued.

The disgraceful, self-defeating scenes we’re living through demonstrate the point. Was the desire to remove the Union flag from city hall evidence of Nationalists’ desire to erode Northern Ireland’s position within the U.K? Yes, of course. Are attempts of this nature antithetical to the Belfast Agreement? To the contrary, challenges to Northern Ireland’s internal and external relationships conducted within the available constitutional and legal architecture is the Agreement in action.

Removing flags may seem petty. It may seem unnecessarily traumatic. It may seem to have buck all to do with building the type of stable, prosperous Northern Ireland that’s a prerequisite for even considering what a united Ireland could look like; a tedious distraction from the real business of finding all-island solutions to the challenges of day-to-day life. However desperate and provocative, such challenges are legitimate. Blocking roads and grinding Northern Ireland to a halt is not.

How unionism responds to such challenges in the years ahead may determine the fate of the union. To paraphrase Terrance O’Neil and most patronizing speech ever given by a political leader in the north, Northern Ireland is again facing a crossroads. As Gerry Lynch quite brilliantly articulated on these pages last week, the cost of prioritizing abstract British symbols above building a Northern Ireland based on modern British values could be the patience of voters the long-term presence of the Union flag depends on.

Pursuing a politics based on British values rather than British symbols would have provided unionist leaders with a proactive magnanimous opportunity to preempt the Nationalist flag challenge by proposing the common British practice of designated days. Instead, as SDLP leader Alasdair Donnell has noted in the Belfast Telegraph, we were served up “…a DUP/UUP sectarian electoral stunt carried out to unseat Naomi Long in east Belfast [that has]… been allowed to be hijacked by loyalist paramilitaries.”

Nationalists aware that Peter Robinson’s “Catholic outreach” was designed primarily with the intention of completing the detoxification of the DUP within the Protestant middle classes are likely to be satisfied at the tumult engulfing his leadership. They should take note of Gerry Lynch’s underlying sentiment. If the tyranny of petty offence-taking is all that’s on offer, people will start seeking alternative choices.

  • DC

    If the tyranny of petty offence-taking is all that’s on offer, people will start seeking alternative choices.

    Alternatively, if people are seriously so offended by a union flag that it must have to be removed then there’s really no persuasive argument that can be put to them at this stage.

    £7+ million to police this flag new policy, whenever it cost nothing to fly it.

  • Red Lion

    Ruarai, very well articuated article, if only it could be transplanted into unionist political heads.

  • iluvni

    I’d like to hear from those businessmen of a Nationalist persuasion, the ones in debt to their ears trying to make a life for their families, and whose businesses are suffering…are they happy with the strategy of their political leaders? Was the removal of the flag and the predictable unrest it would stir up worth it for them?
    The unrest hardly matters to the politicians of Sinn fein/sdlpAlliance given their wages are assured and will be paid into the bank no matter, but for those who have their own money at stake…

  • DC

    @Ruarai

    You say taking the flag down could be perceived as petty but then say the future of the union will be judged based on unionists showing humility to this and other such situations where things like this might happen again. Basically, the flag was taken down simply because nationalists can, an ethnic version of Obama’s ‘yes we can’.

    Just like Gerry’s piece, your piece too is laced with insidious hints of ever-growing irish nationalism, we should somehow all be spooked into thinking again because now the other side of the ethnic coin is gaining purchasing power, it’s going to pester unionists now by removing flags and stuff, just like unionists had pestered nationalists when it could? Is this it, a threat of sorts, mild-mannered and considerate all the same?

    The majority vote at Belfast City Hall reminds me of something that would have come out of the old Orange State.

    So, I still stand by my take on it that total removal of the flag was bigoted, it had bigoted motives and after that it was game over.

    If the union flag is such an issue and it has to go there’s no hope as it indicates high levels of intolerance to the status quo and there’s really no point in showing a bit of ankle at this moment in time.

    Everyone should work at improving relations, working to improve, not remove.

    Reconciliation first, removal last.

    Again, £7+ million to police this mess, it cost nothing to fly the flag.

  • JR

    iluvni,

    I am a self employed nationalist. While I have not been directly affected yet (I have a job coming up on the Newtonards road though), I know a number of people who have including a school friend who owns a clothing shop in Belfast city center. He would fit that description. He said his takings were down £700 a day in the run up to Christmas on the same period last year. He told me his anger is very much against the protesters.

    I don’t imagine there were too many Unionists during the troubles who reacted to the IRA by wondering why the Unionist politicians provoked them.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks for that thoughtful and well-argued posting, Ruarai. Did anyone think that the ‘crisis-in-nationalism’ speech would go unanswered?

  • iluvni

    Fair enough JR. I’m not pushing any agenda of support for those protesting the removal.
    Its a genuine point of interest I havent heard discussed yet.

  • Neil

    I don’t imagine there were too many Unionists during the troubles who reacted to the IRA by wondering why the Unionist politicians provoked them.

    Well said.

  • DC

    I don’t imagine there were too many Unionists during the troubles who reacted to the IRA by wondering why the Unionist politicians provoked them.

    Ah but there’s a very big difference now, both sets of big parties are in government together, the old extremes supposedly working together for the good of this place!

    Martin McGuinness said there should be a Massareene moment where politicians all unite in outrage and disgust. To me that is wide off the mark in terms of a like for like analysis, the dissidents, unelected dissidents, murdered army personnel but at Belfast Council SF took the flag down, not some group of unknowns.

    SF took it down as far as it could, thanks to the Alliance.

  • Brian Walker

    Brilliant Machiavellian stuff Ruarai – a plague on both their houses, boy –seldom before put in such interesting terms, “counter-counter insurgency”, wow! If only politicians and people were clever enough it follow it.

    Are you sure that nationalists wanted to do more than take a wee dig at unionists and unionists wanted to take we dig at Alliance – just a game, honest? – and they all miscalculated? Isn’t your analysis so much more interesting than what happened?

    To be boring again, no the Agreement wasn’t “ a constitutional settlement so much as a settling of the terms and means by which Nationalist challenges to the constitution would be pursued”. It introduced power sharing as the political focus while necessarily leaving the door open on the constitutional question.

    Isn’t the argument is finally specious when you make the impractically narrow distinction:
    “However desperate and provocative, such challenges are legitimate. Grinding Northern Ireland to a halt is not.”

    But such fun!

  • Neil

    but at Belfast Council SF took the flag down, not some group of unknowns.

    And who do you think was in the business of running a Unionist country for a Unionist people? The government of the day. They are the ones who ensured no Nationalist identity could be expressed here. The shoe pinches on the other foot, but hey don’t worry your community still can (and will) erect tens of thousands of Unionist flags from your community across the province in a month or two.

  • Framer

    If Paris was worth a Mass, then a return to the status quo ante for the lifetime of the city council is worth a shared future. N’est ce pas?
    Maggie abandoned the poll tax after the riots so Naomi has a precedent. And it’s only a piece of material anyway.
    SF/SDLP took no notice of equality assessments over the McCreesh play park in Newry. So they are not binding.
    If those three parties have any interest in a shared future or any future they could agree to reverse their decision pro tem.
    Or would that provoke riots in Ballyhackamore and Ballymurphy?
    Perhaps David Ford’s silence after his ‘tribal’ remark is indicative of that possibility.

  • dnotice

    The loyalist rioters are the shadow side of the Bangor Grammar Schooll Unionists, who nip down to Dublin to enjoy the craic during the rugby internationals, but vote DUP in the secrecy of the polling booth. Historically retarded, they are implicitly scared of change, and incapable of embracing the change offered up by the likes of the Alliance Party.

    The rioters are nothing more than disenfranchised fodder. Some of them may never even have seen the sea. They are in the main children, abused by their dysfunctional elders, who are nothing more than hardmen living inside gold fish bowls. Their beloved Glasgow Rangers have imploded and one of their main reasons for living has been eroded. They do not vote,are easy prey to the drug dealers, and are rioting to order, because they have nothing better to do.

    Instead of pointing the finger, so called unionists and nationalists should both take a long hard look at themselves and the fragmented society that is passed off as being normal.

    “Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our
    insanity. ‘Patriotism’ is its cult… Just as love for one
    individual which excludes the love for others is not love,
    love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love
    for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”
    ― Erich Fromm

  • Ruarai

    Hi Brian,

    so since you ask….

    is it over-thinking it to suggest that there were strategic drivers at play here? People have to decide for themselves. (Though the alternative that this is all based on a reaction-counter-reaction dynamic is probably more terrifying than anything else!)

    NI has its fair share of headless chicken-politicians who react but there’s definitely some people who know the score.

    The issue you take with my distinction between legal challenges and street politics is obviously not based on law, so I assume you mean it’s a BS distinction in spirit. I don’t agree with that: the distinction is fair and important. Personally I don’t recommend the politics of provocation but remember, for many unionists – possibly yourself included? – the nationalist agenda is per se provocative.

    Whether or not you’re in that camp, one thrust of my post here is to say, “guys, nationalist challenges to the union (like unionist defenses of it) are here to stay; let’s deal with that reality with more strategic thinking and a little more magnanimity”. Put another way, there’s no Shangri la on offer here where nationalists stop pursuing a nationalist agenda – how unionism deals with that is the whole ballgame.

    And frankly Brian, once the Alliance party starts admitting senior members who openly favour a United Ireland, working to improve NI alongside members who openly favour a union-based arrangement, unionism really will have to get its act together.

  • DC

    And frankly Brian, once the Alliance party starts admitting senior members who open favour a United Ireland working to improve NI alongside members who openly favour a union-based arrangement, unionism really will have to get its act together.

    But don’t you think having a party that is fast becoming pretty agnostic on the union is actually a destabilising factor because it doesn’t have those that are hard headed and astute enough in it to read ethno/sectarian power plays, like what happened at Belfast City Council?

    Basically for want of a less convoluted phrase, the Alliance Party delivered a sub-optimal national identity outcome or output on behalf of an ethno/national group that it doesn’t specifically represent.

    Alliance should have blocked the motion and let SF and the SDLP moderate its position of neutrality to designated days then abstained. That’s good sensible ‘hands-off’ centrism.

    Alliance is supposed to be a non-sectarian party but how come there are sectarian riots out on street as we speak as a result of its ‘compromise’?

  • redstar2011

    There have if course been times when Alliance has voted with Unionists against Nationalists too- it hasnt been all one way.

    I have still to hear anyone give a compelling reason why both/new/no flags wouldn’t be fair

    No side can no longer have it all their own way

  • Neil

    Alliance is supposed to be a non-sectarian party but how come there are sectarian riots out on street as we speak as a result of its ‘compromise’?

    Because Loyalist thugs are loyal only when democracy delivers what they want (not loyal at all then). You can’t blame Alliance for sticking to the policies which the people of East Belfast were informed of when they decided to elect them. As I said who do you blame? Alliance for sticking to their publicised policies or any moron who’s prepared to vote for someone without finding out what their policies are.

    34,000 people voted. Alliance won. The policies were there for all to see. And the blame always lies with the aggressor.

  • redstar2011

    Neil you are of course correct

    Some will never accept a democratic decision if it goes against them

    The whole objection to the flag issue is so false when you consider for 15 years they haven’t said a word about designated days at stormont

  • http://nwhyte.livejournal.com Nicholas Whyte

    we should somehow all be spooked into thinking again because now the other side of the ethnic coin is gaining purchasing power

    This is precisely the point. Changing facts on the ground are exactly what should provoke one to think again; as Ruarai rightly says,

    guys, nationalist challenges to the union (like unionist defenses of it) are here to stay; let’s deal with that reality with more strategic thinking and a little more magnanimity

    Actually, I’d settle for a bit more strategic thinking; magnanimity is a likely consequence of that anyway. But as Gerry so rightly put it,

    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.

  • Zig70

    DC, if it’s reconcile first then the DUP should vote to take down the Ulster Banner from Castlereagh’s council buildings.
    I don’t think nats really expected this much venting over the fleg. They wouldn’t be smart enough to see the DUP try to make political mileage out of it by radicalising the natives.

  • Brian Walker

    Ruarai,
    Absolutely right:

    “one thrust of my post here is to say, “guys, nationalist challenges to the union (like unionist defenses of it) are here to stay; let’s deal with that reality with more strategic thinking and a little more magnanimity”

    On the other hand, nationalists by definition challenge the constitutional status quo. But isn’t there a gap between playing with arguments and practical politics?

    How far do people on both sides want to push it? Less far than for at least 50 years, since the early 1960s, I’d say.

    The genius of the GFA is to challenge the relevance of the unionist-nationalist zero sum game. I see no reason why the Alliance party should play it just to suit your analysis.

    Unity will gradually emerge or further subside when its a matter of personal preference everyone can live with.;Of course the parties will try to pick up brownie points in the meantime for one preference or another. But for them to score, the game will become increasingly benign as the grounds for conflict continues to narrow..

    That’s my vision anyhow, based on at least some evidence.

    The ( fairly) silent majority seem increasingly to like it. I suspect the flags protest is no existential crisis, more part of the long withdrawing roar a anachronistic contest.

    Outright power cannot be won.

    We can’t be sure yet if the main parties chastened by this experience will make the right choices in future.
    We may find out in the outworking of the trouble between now and the next marching season. It may be too much to claim that we’re seeing the rough birth of a new majority but you never know…

    But for gooodness sake, let’s not just passively lie down under the weight of history and wallow in it any more.

    “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” etc., etc…

  • Comrade Stalin

    I don’t imagine there were too many Unionists during the troubles who reacted to the IRA by wondering why the Unionist politicians provoked them.

    An excellent point that bears repeating. The IRA’s campaign of violence was, according to their narrative, a consequence of the ongoing presence of British rule and the unionist veto. Traders, businesses and indeed those who lost everything at the hands of their vicious sectarian campaign did not blame the British or the unionists for failing to appease them – which is as it should be.

  • Comrade Stalin

    framer:

    SF/SDLP took no notice of equality assessments over the McCreesh play park in Newry. So they are not binding.

    If there was a legal case to compel the Newry council to change that decision I’d be happy to contribute financially to it.

  • redstar2011

    Stalin the games up

    No more back of the bus

    Both flags, new flag or no flags.

    Suck it up

  • tacapall

    The real problem is, Unionism is well aware of the commitments it made in the GFA, and what those commitments entailed. Like accepting that Nationalism had the same right to develop our society the way we see, as in the best interests of everyone, politically and peacefully. The same right Unionism has keeping the status quo. Why do they pretend not to understand those commitments and the acceptance that the GFA was not a final settlement. The unpredictable hysteria encouraged over the flag issue by both the DUP/UUP that dragged the bar stool loyalists from their drinking dens who they now cannot control, is a problem that will have to be addressed, unionism must educate their people as to the reality of the GFA.

  • Alias

    Most unionists intrinsically understand that people will always support a political and economic system that they prosper under – it is a simple truth known to all. The problem they have is that there is very little that they can do to improve the political and economic system, beyond waving the begging bowl and trusting to the vagaries of the electorate in a system that was sans consociationalism.

    However, the fact that a majority of Catholics already support the union shows that they don’t actually need to do very much to improve the political and economic system for the purpose of engineering greater support for it.

    All they have to do is not screw things up. That seems to be a difficult task.

    In reality, hiding the symbols of Britishness in civic society is a very effective means of increasing support for the status quo among the Catholic population. The more progressive unionists see this without the need to point it out to them.

    The problem seems to be not so much with those unionists who still believe that the GFA was a means to undermine the union rather than a means of guaranteeing it but with Ulster nationalists.

    45 years on, Ulster is still standing at the same the crossroads that Terrence O’Neill spoke about in 1968:

    “What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected Province, in good standing with the rest of the United Kingdom? Or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations, and regarded by the rest of Britain as a political outcast? As always in a democracy, the choice is yours. I will accept whatever your verdict may be. If it is your decision that we should live up to the words “Ulster is British” which is part of our creed, then my services will be at your disposal to do what I can. But if you should want a separate, inward-looking, selfish and divided Ulster then you must seek for others to lead you along that road, for I cannot and will not do it.”

    The type of civic NI society based on British values that Terrence O’Neill spoke about and that is now the basis of the GFA – parity of esteem for all British citizens – is the type that the Catholics will support, not the type of narrow Ulster tribalism of bonfires and marches – a “separate, inward-looking, selfish and divided Ulster”.

  • redstar2011

    Do you get this idea that most Catholics support the union from some opinion poll?

    I reckon the real indicators are who you vote for not what you tell some pollster. There’s been an awful lot of old guff around opinion polls and surveys which are invariably proven wrong when it comes election time

  • BluesJazz

    Alias
    Maybe that statue on the staircase of Craig in Stormont should be replaced by one of Captain O’ Neill.

    The picture of the replacement should be shown to Ian Paisley (Snr) so he can see the light before he goes.

  • abucs

    It seems that some posters are saying that the decision on flag flying is democratic and therefore it should be respected. Others are saying that the decision is not a good one and it is understandable that some show their disrespect .

    I guess the wider question is on the limits of democracy and what democratic decisions would cause each of us to disrespect the state.

    Are there no-go areas for the state if it wants to keep the respect it cannot function without?

    Or does democracy rule supreme in all cases? If not, why not?

  • DC

    @abucs

    Good points, worthy of a separate debate.

  • latcheeco

    “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.”

    This pointing at a technicality to vindicate Alliance cleverness and claim manners were actually put on ” a bunch of sinners” was transparent nonsense by Gerry Lynch.

    But the truth is that they have been treated unfairly by unionism because if it was up to Alliance the fleg and the distaste most of the city feels about it would never have been an issue. It would still be flying.

    Alliance aren’t neutral or honest brokers, but they are a party that has pretended to be and which has for its whole history with a few exceptions cynically and self-servingly existed off faux neutrality and sanctimony. This time it got them trapped through the machinations of an uglier face of unionism and Mr. Lynch in his piece was merely crying foul and threatening to take his ball and go home.

    What really happened at BCC was that in lieu of an equality agreement, and subsequently as a stop gap to total removal of a deliberately provocative symbol of unionist hegemony which, in order to remind the taigs of their place, was required to be flown 365 days a year for over 100 years (since even before our country was partitioned) all nationalists’ representatives on the council temporarily accepted 96% removal. Alliance got the best deal for fellow unionists they could at this time. If that’s a nationalist defeat unionists must be only holding a forum to reminisce on old times?

  • http://nwhyte.livejournal.com Nicholas Whyte

    This pointing at a technicality … was transparent nonsense

    Or to put it another way, this reporting of the facts makes some people uncomfortable, because it is actually true.

  • Comrade Stalin

    latch,

    I’m more than happy for nationalists to call the designated days policy a victory. The crucial question is exactly why unionists who supported the same policy elsewhere have chosen not to do so.

  • redstar2011

    I note St Paddys day is a designated day-ironic??

  • Mickles

    @Alias

    Not sure about the ‘fact’ of the majority of Catholics being pro-union but this…

    “In reality, hiding the symbols of Britishness in civic society is a very effective means of increasing support for the status quo among the Catholic population. The more progressive unionists see this without the need to point it out to them.”

    ..is true for this particular (ex) Catholic Status Quo-er.

    Maybe not ‘hiding’ the symbols as such is necessary, just not having it rammed down my throat constantly would go a long way.

    I’m not pro or anti Union, and I’m not pro or anti United Ireland. It is what it is, history happened – I’m over it and ready to make a living, I was lucky enough to nab a job with a company that decided to invest here in the last few years, but I wonder how lucky others will be in the future, given the current image of N.I being projected.

    I’m embarrassed for us in front of the non-native company employees – I feel like walking around mouthing “I’m not with them” when the e-mail goes out that we are permitted to leave early due to ‘ongoing social unrest’.

  • Alias

    Northern Ireland will lose FDI over it and so will Ireland by association.

    It’s a price we’ve always had to pay whenever the two tribes go to war up there.

    If you buy into the myth that the SDLP/Shinners are just poor misfortunate and witless fools who didn’t know exactly what would happen when they removed the flag, then you might forgive the transgression on their learning curve given folks deem them fit to hold the office.

    But when you observe the ferocity of the demands that the PSNI bash the protestors heads in and eager glee in which they anticipate that occurrence, then you know why the Catholic tribes removed the flag.

    The irony is that their ‘victory’ over the unionist protestors is just another defeat for the ‘nationalists.’ Improving the status quo is not a policy that is designed to undermine support for the union but to, rather obviously, consolidate support for it.

  • Mickles

    Who is ferociously demanding protestors’ heads to be bashed in?

  • Viridiplantae

    Ruarai

    Yes, the Union Flag coming down is indicative of changing Nationalist-Unionist power dynamics that are now less favorable to unionists than at any time since the foundation of the Northern Ireland state.

    While the above is not really concrete enough to challenge directly I don’t think that it’s a realistic representation of what happened or what is happening. The reality is far more nuanced and complex than that.

    There seems to be many people, unionist, nationalist and neither, who have a strange notion that Northern Ireland will become majority Catholic, Northern Ireland will become majority nationalist, and we will then have a border poll in which a legion of Rory McIlroy’s will ride up to polling stations and tether their unicorns, sneak into the polling booths and secretly save the union which would otherwise be lost without their clandestine votes. All the sensible evidence is actually pointing to the fact that none of that is going to happen.

    Perhaps people need to repeat these three facts ten times before breakfast until they sink into their worldview. Note that these are facts and not opinions and we are not entitled to our own private facts, whatever our opinions or our predictions of the future.

    1) The nationalist share of the vote has not increased since the turn of the 21st century. The unionist vote share has slightly shrunk and the Alliance (and assorted others like Greens) has slightly grown since then.
    2) The Catholic or brought up Catholic proportion of Northern Ireland’s population would have been no higher in 2011 than it was in 2001 if not for the immigration into Northern Ireland after 2001 of people who do not speak English or Irish as their first language. OK, this has not quite been technically proven yet, but it’s near impossible to reconcile the figures that have been released unless this is the case, and it soon will be proven when greater census detail is released.
    3) Yes, changing demographics have led to Unionists losing control of Belfast City Council. However this didn’t happen in 2012, or in 2011, immediately preceding the flag vote. It happened in 1997. While to some of us who are getting on in years 1997 may seem like yesterday, it was actually 16 years ago.

    I have seen all manner of people, unionists, nationalists, Alliance supporters, British journalists, Irish journalists, foreign journalists, saying all kinds of rather dubious things seemingly because they have not internalised one or more of the above three facts. There are of course some people who have not internalised them because emotionally they don’t want to, though that will presumably be a temporary affair for most of them as time and events move on.

    Now I’ll leave the realm of facts and past events and enter the realm of opinion and prediction of the future.

    Taking 2) first. There is no prospect of Northern Ireland ever having a Catholic majority, even by the contrived “or brought up in” census definition of Catholicism. There were several European states divided between Protestants and Catholics in 1900; Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands. Northern Ireland’s religious demographics will follow the same path as all of the rest of them. Northern Ireland’s next census will have both less Protestants and less Catholics than the last one, as will Germany’s next census, Switzerland’s next census and the Netherland’s next census. If it had not have been for the accession of most of Eastern Europe into the EU in 2004, this would have already happened in Northern Ireland’s 2011 census, but the A8 accession was a unique event and won’t happen again.

    Yes, Northern Ireland no longer has a Protestant majority, but neither does Great Britain, and technically Protestants actually became a minority in Northern Ireland in about 1993 or 1994.

    Now taking 1). There is no good reason, using current trends, to predict that Northern Ireland will have a Nationalist voting majority at some point in the future. When the Catholic or brought up Catholic proportion of the population grew by 1.4% between 2001 and 2011 but where apparently approximately 2.0% percent of that growth was from those not speaking English or Irish as their main language (i.e. the “native” Catholic or brought up Catholic proportion dropped by about 0.6%) the nationalist proportion of the vote stayed the same. With the Catholic or brought up Catholic proportion of the population set to shrink in future (see last paragraph) what is likely to happen to the Nationalist proportion of the vote? In my opinion the same thing as happened to the Unionist proportion of the vote when the Protestant or brought up Protestant proportion of the population shrank. It’s going to go down, ceteris paribus. What grew, then stood still, is now going to shrink, unless some unknown and unpredictable factor comes into play.

    The underlying demographics, including the secularisation process and not just the echo of past differences in total fertility rates, are now pointing to Unionist vote down, Nationalist vote down, and Alliance vote up. This will not be music to nationalist ears, however there may be room for a greater “floating vote” amongst the new de-tribalised hordes in the centre than there was from the tribalised hordes on either side. Nationalism and Unionism may be able to grow their vote shares into the centre, whether as one party or as multiple parties, but it seems to me that the only way either can is by stealing some of Alliance’s clothes, which probably includes stealing their clothes on things like flags and the Irish language, which to many nationalists would probably rather defeat the point of the exercise, whereas a big U unionist centrist like Basil McCrea would seem to be a more realistic potential threat to Alliance in the centre than any Nationalist could be.

    On present trends, though Nationalists will not become the majority, they will outnumber Unionists sometime in the 2030s, as some more of the historical fertility difference winds out. However that should come with the health warning that if we were sitting here in 1993 making the same predictions by 2013 nationalists would already be in the majority. Now more than ever both Unionism and Nationalism have the potential to gain converts, because previously the only pool either could gain converts from were each other, which was a tall order, but we now have a large pool of de-tribalised people and immigrants amongst whom either side, or both, can fish. What seems like an ever increasingly Alliance coloured future might not turn out quite that way when we’re looking back on it from the hindsight of 2033, just like the 2013 we thought we’d see in 1993 hasn’t really turned out that way.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks for that substantial and thoughtful posting, Viridiplantae. Out of respect for its amplitude I’ll have to go away and think about it.

  • http://nwhyte.livejournal.com Nicholas Whyte

    Viridiplantae,

    Good points all. I don’t recall any 2013 predictions from 1993; here, however, is a 1997 prediction that the Nationalist vote would overtake the Unionist vote by 2012!

  • Alias

    In 30 years’ time Ireland and the UK will be fully integrated regions of the EU. If we’re still alive, we’ll look back and laugh at the two eunuchs fighting over a virgin.

  • Ruarai

    Viridiplantae,

    not sure what in my post you’re taking issue with.

  • http://footballcliches.wordpress.com/ footballcliches

    Ruarai,

    A very interesting post.

    ‘We know this because any serious strategy for building a united Ireland can be measured against the stability of Northern Ireland: an unstable Northern Ireland will never be welcomed into a 32 county state.’

    I am not entirely certain about this tbh. Whilst not ideal, the Southern electorate would not be stupid enough to think that guys like what we see on the news with their flegs are not going to kick up a storm or some kind of insurgency/pogrom, nitpicking I know, but what is meant by ‘stability’, a fairly loose term in this instance.

  • Ruarai

    footballcliches,

    You raise an important question. I’ll do a longer more focused post on “stability” when I get a chance but here’s the gist for my answer for now.

    The key source of instability in a society is less the capacity of certain elements to go on the rampage and more precisely the environment within which potential rampagers will conduct their cost-benefit calculation prior to letting rip. Rewarding or even fearing those who create instability only encourages it thereby laying the foundations for a shakier state, not a more stable one.

    Seen this way, one of the greatest sources of instability a society could produce – whether the north now or the whole island later – is the consequence of failing to disincentivise those who would contemplate fostering instability. Failing to challenge even a perception that the state may fold in the face of a threat will only encourage those who would threaten. In short: Never mind a future all-Ireland arrangement, the north is currently facing this exact choice.

    Is it frequently more destabilizing – long and short term – to ‘reward’ those who engage in obstruction and violence or the threat of violence.

    Had Loyalists, for example, engaged in a very well managed campaign of peaceful dignified protest, they may have created a greater chance for successfully challenging the situation. Instead, the presence of so many instances of violence and menace has made it harder for the state to concede anything. As we saw in 1996 with Drumcree, it’s not 1974 anymore. (Then again, maybe some idiot will calculate that it’s not 1996 either. That would be shortsighted, in my view.)

    When a small but determined group of insurgents challenged the southern state in the 30s, the state’s response was brutally forceful. In a small state such a response type is predictable as security and order rest on more of a knife-edge.

    The point simply being that while yes, Loyalists, dissidents and potentially a host of other groups could pose real and theoretical challenges to the workings of the current state or future state, it does not follow that those challenges would be the greatest or only sources of instability.

    Ironically, the most destabilizing reaction the state may be considering at present is to reward and be seen to reward the lawbreakers. It would, in my view, create a greater source of instability at the present-medium term, should the state back down or buy off and be seen to back down or buy off.

  • http://footballcliches.wordpress.com/ footballcliches

    Thanks for the reply Ruarai, I know it is late back home.

    ‘Failing to challenge even a perception that the state may fold in the face of a threat will only encourage those who would threaten. In short: Never mind a future all-Ireland arrangement, the north is currently facing this exact choice.’

    Is it? Do we honestly think that we will see some kind of reversal of the BCC decision or the flying of the union flag above Stormont anytime soon? I am pretty certain that for all of their knuckle dragging, the guys running the flegs protests know this too, so why are they rioting then if they know they will not be rewarded in this specific instance?

    ‘Is it frequently more destabilizing – long and short term – to ‘reward’ those who engage in obstruction and violence or the threat of violence.’

    Agreed, however, again I do not see these protesters being rewarded, molly-coddled by unionist pols perhaps, or let off with causing trouble, yes, but I do not see any reward they may have gained from their actions.

    ‘Ironically, the most destabilizing reaction the state may be considering at present is to reward and be seen to reward the lawbreakers. It would, in my view, create a greater source of instability at the present-medium term, should the state back down or buy off and be seen to back down or buy off.’

    Well, this does raise a lot more questions than answers. When you have half of the ‘state’ on the side of the mob who are rioting and causing the trouble, yet has a check in place from a party/populace that is against your position and forms the other half of the ‘state’, I do wonder how the mob can be rewarded.

    It makes me wonder what the unionist game plan (at the political elite level) is with these protests; hope that they fizzle out as I have no idea what they could possibly buy the rioters off with whilst unionism is power sharing with Nats.

  • Ruarai

    Hey FC,

    The rewards/buy-off will be what they always are:

    “targeted investment”, i.e. based on politics not need, including the appointment of new “Community Interface Managers” or whatever the hell such positions are called.

    Check out Dodds DSD 2002 post-Holy Cross moves to see the pending moves back to the future.

  • http://footballcliches.wordpress.com/ footballcliches

    Ruarai,

    That may well be true, but in all honesty, how is this a ‘reward’ for unionism? If this is the case that there are more of these ‘Community Interface Managers’ (and I have little reason to doubt that this will be the pay off) I don’t see how this furthers the goals of unionism, in fact, I’m going to bet that it will only make more centrist unionists who have been out of the habit of voting or have switched from the UUP to APNI cringe, seethe and/or continue to abstain, abstain in greater numbers or vote elsewhere.

    The riot leaders get paid, that’s a reward for them of sorts, but in the bigger picture this is not a reward for unionism, Nationalism takes 2 steps fwd and 1 step back, yet has made a net gain, whilst political unionism is in a bit of a dire position.

  • Ruarai

    FC,

    “The riot leaders get paid, that’s a reward for them of sorts, but in the bigger picture this is not a reward for unionism”

    Indeed. Remember, I’m not saying it’s a clever approach for Unionism or for stability in Northern Ireland. It’s a dynamic that perpetuates the incentives for ‘filling the streets’ now and again.

    But I think there is a degree of thinking within actual Unionist parties that thinks about what’s in the interests of the parties while negelcting the ideological goals. (A common blight on all associations of people everywhere.)

    And here we’re getting to the heart of a lot of this. That party politics thinking see’s the need to keep assuring Loyalists that they can deliver the goods now and again. After all, if doubts raised emerge about that then Loyalists may oganize political alternatives of their own that challeneged the middle class DUP/UUP more successfully that groups like the PUP or UDP have to date.

    A key fear Unionists have always had is that loyalist communities will lose their dependency on them. Relying on loyalist deference towards middle class unionists was always much easier in the days of the Orange state when providing the goods was easy. Now that (1) the political mechanics don’t exist to provide those goods and (2) the goods themselves have been lost to Thatcher and Globalization, middle class unionist political parties have little to give loyalists and little means of delivering what they have left to offer.

    All that’s left is:

    1) We’ll fight for the symbols!
    2) We’ll provide the targeted ‘community investment porgrams’ (investment based on creed not need.)

    So while you’re absolutely right that the broader cause of union preservation may suffer as this party political “buy off” approach becomes increasingly unsustainable in the eyes of both Nationalists and Garden Center unionist voters, that’s exactly the tension and challenge I’m higlighting in my post.

    The contradictions all unfold eventually…

  • http://footballcliches.wordpress.com/ footballcliches

    Ruarai,

    ‘Indeed. Remember, I’m not saying it’s a clever approach for Unionism or for stability in Northern Ireland. It’s a dynamic that perpetuates the incentives for ‘filling the streets’ now and again.’

    No, I know you are not saying this, however, I am. I am saying that ultimately unionists want to further the stability of the union, for the North to stay in the union, that is their raison d’etre, right? In this instance, they also want the union flag to fly over City Hall, I just wonder how they view their actions as bringing this any closer.

    ‘But I think there is a degree of thinking within actual Unionist parties that thinks about what’s in the interests of the parties while negelcting the ideological goals. (A common blight on all associations of people everywhere.)’

    To a certain extent, yes, however, it could also be said that unionist parties believed that this would forward both their political cause AND their party interest. DUP gets East Belfast back, UUP gets back some who voted APNI too.

    ‘And here we’re getting to the heart of a lot of this. That party politics thinking see’s the need to keep assuring Loyalists that they can deliver the goods now and again. After all, if doubts raised emerge about that then Loyalists may oganize political alternatives of their own that challeneged the middle class DUP/UUP more successfully that groups like the PUP or UDP have to date.’

    It is always a fear in unionism, but while working class unionism keeps up the racketeering and drug pushing any new party that they produce will always return the lowly numbers and be marginalised by all (see the UDP and PUP for instance).

    ‘A key fear Unionists have always had is that loyalist communities will lose their dependency on them. Relying on loyalist deference towards middle class unionists was always much easier in the days of the Orange state when providing the goods was easy. Now that (1) the political mechanics don’t exist to provide those goods and (2) the goods themselves have been lost to Thatcher and Globalization, middle class unionist political parties have little to give loyalists and little means of delivering what they have left to offer.’

    True, but there bigger problem has always been bringing their whole ‘family’ along for the ride or explaining to them what is happening re compromises to be made, this is merely an outworking of that re cultural symbols.

    ‘All that’s left is:

    1) We’ll fight for the symbols!
    2) We’ll provide the targeted ‘community investment porgrams’ (investment based on creed not need.)

    So while you’re absolutely right that the broader cause of union preservation may suffer as this party political “buy off” approach becomes increasingly unsustainable in the eyes of both Nationalists and Garden Center unionist voters, that’s exactly the tension and challenge I’m higlighting in my post.’

    Granted, you did note how unionism is dealing with this in your original post and how this may unfold, hence why I go for unionism in the main (macro) as opposed to the fleg fathers running the riots (micro).

    ‘The contradictions all unfold eventually…’

    I wouldn’t count on it, see for instance unionism saying it wants a future where there is no sectarianism in the North. Funny, that wasn’t the case when they bullied there way into creating this place…

  • PaddyReilly

    I am intrigued by the contribution of someone called Viridiplantae using the same arguments that come I think from Gopher: probably a form of sock-puppeting.

    Virid, like many people who were brought up under FPTP, has failed to adapt to multiple choice voting, and confuses the effective vote with the 1st preference vote.

    Gerry Lynch would have it that only 48% of population vote Unionist. Someone else mentions 48% Unionist, 44% Nationalist, 8% others. But when it comes to the crunch, the good news is that Unionists can rely on at least 3% of transfers from Unionist leaning voters who give their 1st preference to Alliance, (and subsequent preferences to Unionist parties) and so have a working majority pro tem. That is why we still have partition.

    The bad news is that Nationalists also gain 2nd prefs and their final total, at 49%, is rising. So you can see that the final Nationalist vote has continued to rise, but this rise has been disguised by the expansion of the Alliance Party, Greens, People before Profit, etc, at 1st preference level only.

    The next distortion concerns Belfast:-

    Yes, changing demographics have led to Unionists losing control of Belfast City Council. However this didn’t happen in 2012, or in 2011, immediately preceding the flag vote. It happened in 1997.

    Actually Unionists, though no longer the majority in 1997, with 25 councillors they remained the largest block in the chamber, and could easily bully the Alliance members to get what they wanted. In 2011 however, with only 21 Unionist councillors, the figures have reversed and the Nationalist block is the largest, leading to the present ructions. So yes, the Nationalist vote is increasing, and it is increasing fastest in Belfast.