One of the things that’s been puzzling me about the news flows over the last few days. Why, when the NI Life and Times survey has been diligently mapping social and political attitudes over the least 13 years has everyone suddenly got so agitated about social patterns that have been apparent for most of that time.
It’s like no one noticed before. But these figures were available when we first published our study of the future of unionism back in May 2003. We pointed out then that the high figures in favour of the status quo should not lull unionism (which, to be fair, had barely noticed the pronounced trend for acceptance of the Union there was back then), into a false sense of security.
Rather they should use it as a spur to making the Union a better place for all the people of Northern Ireland. In fact, they did not need us (or the NILT) to tell them, the last census demonstrated that continuing to treat Catholics as though they were aliens was a politically foolhardy ‘strategy’. Chris Thornton, then of the Belfast Telegraph:
“The question of a united Ireland is far from settled. But for those who equate unionism simply with the protection of Protestant rights, it is clear that Northern Ireland will never be the same again.”
On the Nationalist side, where the shock to the system has been felt hardest, Liam Clarke has one of the more succinct arguments over why the apparent disparity between the large vote for Sinn Fein and the apparently low vote for a united Ireland (and a low preference amongst Catholics for Unionist parties):
…if more than half of Northern Catholics say they prefer the link with Britain, why do only 1% think of themselves as unionist or consider voting unionist? How can the fact that only 33% aspire to a united Ireland be squared with the fact that 54% consider themselves nationalist? The answer is that for Catholics, nationalism isn’t just, or even mainly, about removing the border. It is about standing up to political unionism within Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin has shown itself to be so good at this that a united Ireland has moved off the agenda.
This great fallacy in much of the response to the survey is in the allusion to its disparity with general polling averages. People vote for any given political party for a whole basket of reasons. Even in the most recent General Election in the Republic it is likely the Sinn Fein surge owed more to its radical critique of the bank bail out than any overall desire for unification.
But Nationalists who are intent on making unification of north and south a priority, should not dispair but take a leaf out of Mr Robinson’s copy book and work out how to make it an attractive option for everyone in Northern Ireland.
The question is, how you do that without losing those people who vote for you for the way you put it up to the other side? Perhaps the more important strategic consideration is increasingly difficulty the public will have in separating the political interests of Sinn Fein and the DUP over more mundane policy issues when they spend so much time behind locked doors hammering out a common public position.
A more strategically articulated narrative on the border could be one way to demonstrate merit in which is capable of appealling to all of Northern Ireland’s citizens. As Paul Murphy pointed out nearly nine years ago, demographics is the Norwegian Blue of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland.
Just ask Alex Salmond, who has successfully (and fundamentally) changed the nature of the Scottish Question….