The political parties should not deceive themselves that the lessons from demographic change are simple and obvious

“ The morning after the Brexit vote, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party said that “the constitutional question has been reopened, and we now have people who were content in Northern Ireland thinking again about a united Ireland

Has  this development become  the new driver of politics or is it  still in the background? At this moment the answer cannot be known. Yet it has set the climate for the interparty talks which resume on Monday. The words come from the distinguished researcher Paul Nolan at the end of his commentary   in the Irish Times on a data mapping exercise of Northern Ireland by The Detail. This lays out the demographic and spatial shifts which have only strengthened communal separation nearly twenty years after the GFA.

But wasn’t formal power sharing designed to chart the way through these changes by a process of continuous negotiation and compromise? Nolan comes near to arguing that the  form of power sharing makes  failure inevitable.

There has been a lack of governmental commitment to either integrated schools or integrated housing. For the two main political blocs, there is an obvious benefit in having their respective electorates corralled in manageable geographical areas where their voting choices are securely anchored. The peace agreement negotiated in 1998 took the two communal identities as fixed and immutable entities and built the political architecture on these two pillars..

Significantly, the 2011 census also showed that, for the first time, Protestants no longer made up the majority of the population, the new total having fallen to 48 per cent.

An equal balance of populations on the demographic seesaw requires a power-sharing government, but that on its own is not sufficient to guarantee stability. For that, there must also be stability in the surrounding arrangements.

While officially only   internal arrangements are the subject of Monday’s resumption of the interparty talks, the “surrounding arrangements “like the future of the border will crucially affect  the outcome.  Even more so will be assumptions about the demographic changes described in the Detail’s report. And here speculation is helium-filled, taking it into the stratosphere.

The two main parties are like boxers at the weigh-in playing mind games.  For Sinn Fein the southpaw, another election would be a fair punt on winning the small margin needed to claim the First Minister position and create the impression of unstoppable momentum. The DUP are shuffling backwards and forwards with fists up, nervously shouting “bring it on”.

None of the posturing has anything to do with stability. But politics is first about competition and negotiations involve secrecy.  We onlookers have no choice but to put up with it.

Meanwhile, Monday looms.  The secretary of state has rejected an outside mediator.,   He seems to accept Sinn Fein’s veto on  an active chairing role for himself, making the doubtful assumption that yesterday’s failure must mean tomorrow’s success. Unless we hear of a new format, the absence of an active chair remains a basic problem, so the talks may fall at the next hurdle.

By their nature , negotiations are different from the noises off which naturally dominate comment in  the absence of progress. They should properly start with agendas and relate them to the formal state of the government before the breakdown. A good chair would prevent recriminations and look for limited points of agreement to build on and reserve the most difficult to later .

Sinn Fein’s agenda is well known. It may stretch its content to the limit but there are real points that should be taken seriously and put to the test. They know that the demographics will not produce the overall nationalist majority in the Assembly that would compel a fundamental rethink. To quote an already  well-worn phrase: “ this is not the time” and any rethink would  involve much more than Sinn Fein. But for now they are having a high old time filling the vacuum.

The DUP’s position seems mainly reactive to Sinn Fein’s confident militancy which makes  any concessions seem like weakness. This would be mitigated if the governments took an active role in presenting principles for progress and active propositions. The British government in particular cannot pretend they are mere  moderators after 36 years of direct rule followed by  elusive stability which has required frequent  interventions of  the last 20.

Dublin has so far resisted Gerry Adams’ repeated calls to play a more active role. If they did, it might not be in Sinn Fein’s favour. Chairmanship, Brokenshire has reminded Dublin in little asides, is the British prerogative anyway for talks that are supposed to be about internal governance whatever the state of the storm outside.

Despite all the noises off we know little of substance about the talks, mainly because there has been none.  They will have to move up a gear if they’re to achieve  progress or any clarity about the way ahead without an early restoration of the Assembly.  The lessons of the demographics are neither simple nor entirely obvious.  However analysed, they are massive. It will require integrity and courage to meet them. At least the challenges are well known and  Brexit has raised the stakes. The priority for today and tomorrow is to prevent years of political uncertainty from degenerating into chaos.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London