Nothing in life is inevitable so the old saying goes, other than death and taxes and maybe Arsenal finishing fourth in the Premier League, so the recent old news that the Catholic population of Northern Ireland may soon reach a voting majority might cause sleepless nights. Of course, Unionists will be quick to point out that substantial numbers of Catholics, including a proportion of SF voters, would not vote for a United Ireland if a referendum were to be held tomorrow. Such ‘soft’ nationalists, the theory goes, have been seduced by the NHS and generous welfare provisions into voting for their economic, rather than cultural interests. So far, so good, but nothing stays the same and the winds of change are growing strong.
For a start, there is no body of evidence to suggest Catholics are casting first preferences in any significant numbers for Unionist parties. Their contentment (if that’s what it is), within the Union has been attained though EU membership which has made the border largely invisible, and the Good Friday Agreement which placed Nationalism on an equal footing with Unionism. All that changed with the last election. The DUP’s dire warnings about a ‘Radical Republican agenda’, got enough to the polls for it to just about keep its nose in front. The tactic, tried and tested since 1922, stopped votes leaking to Unionist rivals and maintained the DUP’s cherished position as ‘the leader of Unionism’, but the associated dog whistling – hostility to any manifestation of Irishness – which plays well to its voters also raised Nationalism from its slumber. Foster somehow managed to get twice as many SF stay-at-homes out than for her own party. Now that they smell victory, even more armchair Republicans may turn out to deliver the coup de grâce next time.
It’s a mess and a mess of Unionism’s own making. Sectarian scare tactics win elections but they alienate the very moderate Catholics the Union needs if it is to survive beyond the next few years. Despite Scots-Gaelic and Welsh having legal recognition in other UK devolved regions, replicating the gesture in N. Ireland is portrayed as a ‘concession’ to ravenous reptiles that will inevitably return for more. Designated flag days are fine for Finchley but not Belfast. Here, being British means proving it by flying the Union flag wherever and whenever possible and by cheerfully following Theresa May over the cliff edge of Brexit, even if a hard border, either at Newry or Stranraer is the result. None of these things endear northern Catholics to the Union and unless enough of them can be persuaded they can live in a UK where their Irish identity is cherished, increasing numbers will be prepared to take a chance on the relative unknown of a United Ireland rather than a totally unknown post-Brexit UK. Massive constitutional and economic change is coming, so a border poll is no longer a choice between the status quo and change, but between two vastly different futures. Which one are Northern Nationalists likely to find more attractive?
Leadership and imagination is required from Unionism but it unfortunately neither are ever rewarded. Nesbitt tried in a humble way and failed. His move let Foster blame him for an electoral disaster of her own making. The DUP can win the next assembly election and maybe the one after that by casting Gerry Adams and Republicans as Lord Voldemort and his evil minions, but if she wants to win a real border poll, something more will be required – a generosity of spirit that so far, has been entirely lacking. If Unionism doesn’t change its obsession with opposing any form of Irishness and regarding any change as a concession, a United Ireland will be inevitable. Nationalists just have to sit back and watch as Unionists slowly destroy the very thing they claim to cherish.
As Napoleon said, ‘Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.’
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam