A referendum on Irish unity is more likely than you think

The flag riots have shown sectarianism to be as potent as ever while the census may have shown that the old easy equivalence between Protestant/ unionist and Catholic/nationalist has gone. What are we to make of the contradiction?  Can we have it both ways:  to be dismayed by the upsurge of sectarian violence yet encouraged by the decline in bottom line sectarian identities? Has the trouble been “the spasm of a dying cause”, as Bill Neely put it from comfortable exile (like me) in the Sun or a cause still in rude health?

The coincidence of the census returns and the flag riots prompts longer term questions.

How could nationalist demands for referendum be resisted in 10 or 20 years’ time when the graph of Catholic numbers may have put them over the top?

After last week, who would bet against determined loyalist resistance?

This time – with this year’s commemorations of the Ulster Covenant in mind – would unionism resistance triumph yet again? No way, the power has gone but the prospect of a reversion to sectarian stereotypes and chaos can’t be dismissed. And that could be a far worse result than partition was on 1921.

These are key questions we’re left with at the end of 2012, hypothetical may be but based on trends exposed last week.

Learned commentators like Robin Wilson and Liam Clark have been chiding politicians for failing keeping up with the new realities of more complex identities.  But I do not understand Robin’s objections to the census question on Protestant or Catholic original identity. It acknowledges the important fact of a still basic divide which also allows for measuring change.

Shifting identities create new political problems. One is that they lack a political magnet to counteract the old certainties of sectarian parties. And two, people with more diverse opinions are less likely to vote. The Life and Times survey of 2010 widely underestimated the support the main parties actually won in 2011. But survey and polls represent all opinion not only voters. The turnout in the Assembly elections of   2011 was 54%, part of marked trend since the 1998 Assembly election when the turnout was 70%   Dwindling numbers of voters have endorsed and by and large strengthened  the community divide.  PR has produced no realignment either of voters or parties and the blocs for all their rigidity, represent broad political reality.

What might spark a referendum on unity? I see no alternative to a nationalist majority in an Assembly election,  in first preference votes or seats. I don’t seee how it could be denied, whatever the consequences on the streets. The 1973 border poll, e introduced for very different political reasons took place at the height of the Troubles.

Why should a nationalist majority for the Assembly not be repeated in a referendum? A possible answer lies in the Good Friday Agreement referendum of 1998 when the turnout was 81%. Turnout in the Assembly election only a month later fell by nearly 10%. It’s reckoned an extra 147,000 who usually didn’t vote voted in the referendum, mostly Protestants voting in favour. Even then the total unionist vote for the GFA and power sharing seems to have scraped  a  narrow 52% majority of the unionist population (If I have got this wrong no doubt we’ll all be told).

Would a referendum on unity in the medium term  produce a similar high turnout – and on which side? Would it block unity?

Today or in future years, the number of non-voters in Assembly elections is almost certain to be much higher but voters will still be supporting the existing parties. Or would a looming  Catholic majority provoke  bigger Protestant turnouts and votes for change?

More immediately  and more constructively, can Assembly politics develop to avert the fairly high chance of a calamitous confrontation?   If people feel helpless now, their empowerment is in their own hands.