Whither the union. I find myself becoming weary as I write this. Articles about the demise of the union, about unionist malaise and mistakes, are so common these days that they all sound the same. I stopped writing them at one point because I had nothing new to add. Even now, people write these pieces with a weird air of arrogance. They want you to know that they and they alone have figured out that unionism is in a difficult spot. All praise the enlightened speaker from above, come to deliver an original argument that is printed in every newspaper at least once a week.
And so, I throw myself into the hot take factory knowing that I am walking across well-trodden, overstated discourse. I feel, however, that some have ignored significant and relevant statistics over the past weeks, including the latest census results. The election in May produced a similar phenomenon. Heads are being buried in sand. People are falling back on familiar tropes. “This changes nothing,” has been the mantra.
Beneath the comfort blanket sits constitutional dynamite. Give it 10-15 years. Without a change of direction, it could explode.
The stats suggest that unionism’s support based comes from an older, aging population. It does not have enough young people to replace this generation when it passes. The younger generation coming forward are more likely to be catholic, identify as Irish/Northern Irish and support a united Ireland.
Unionism has a young people problem. A huge one.
Lucid Talk is bad. Lucid talk is awful. Wait, hang on, it’s not?
For years unionists have dismissed Bill White’s polling results. Trawl through years of tweets and opinion pieces and you’ll find MLAs and commentators condemning them as inaccurate and unserious. All that changed this year when Lucid Talk reported that a majority of unionists supported the DUP’s Protocol strategy. Lucid Talk is great now, OK? Bill White knows what he’s talking about.
Let’s talk numbers:
The latest Lucid Talk poll shows that the pro union cause is in dire straits when it comes to young people. 57% of 18–24-year-olds would vote for a united Ireland in a border poll. Among my age group, the 25–44-year-olds, support for the union stands at 48%. 41% of that same demographic would vote for a United Ireland. 10% are undecided.
When it comes to age, support for political unionism is woeful. It is low and spread across the DUP, UUP and TUV. Among 18–24-year-olds, 34% are voting for Sinn Fein with Alliance in second place at 18%. The majority of people aged 18-14 are not voting for unionist parties. On a broader scale, Doug Beattie has noted that only 18% of new votes cast since 2016 were for unionist parties.
A NI Youth Forum survey from 2021 would suggest that Lucid Talks findings are spot on. 40% of survey participants said they would support a United Ireland compared to 33% support for the union.
The Census results throw another spanner in the works. According to the Dr David Marshall, “The religious demography of Northern Ireland in part is driven by age structures.” The catholic community is, on average, younger than the protestant one.
to the census the number of people identifying as British only is declining. Over ten years ago, 40% of people identified as British. Now that figure stands at 31.86%. This is partly down to an aging, population as opposed to Brexit, but the statistic is stark. 19.7% of people in Northern Ireland now identify as Northern Irish only. A further 9% identified as Northern Irish alongside identifying as either British or Irish only.
The census results aren’t available by age demographic, but we can look at other polls and guess what the results might say. In an August 2022 poll for the Belfast Telegraph, only 14% of young people identified as British only. 31% identified as Northern Irish only. 41% of young people in that same survey identified as Irish.
For decades the strength of the union has, wrongly, foolishly, been built on top of a protestant, unionist majority. Some unionists claim that the latest census figures mean nothing as demographics don’t matter. They do matter, because Unionist politics, rhetoric and strategy has revolved around demographics since the foundation of the state.
As of this week, the house of sand is gone. Nobody should mourn its passing. The Northern Ireland of my parent’s generation has disappeared. What stands in its place is a pluralist population made up different identities and creeds.
If you are pro union or unionist, the statistics for young people should terrify you. They are catastrophic for the future. They suggest, as Gerry Lynch has pointed out, that it’s game over by 2040.
OK, but it’s complicated I hear you scream. Yes, it is complicated. If a border poll was called tomorrow, the pro union side would win. A united Ireland isn’t inevitable. The middle ground needs to be convinced and there’s no sign they’re being swayed by either side. Being catholic does not mean that one supports a united Ireland. The constitutional question is a deeply personal one for all of us. When it comes to Northern Ireland’s future, there are many factors at play. Age is only one of them.
Unfortunately, the internal dynamics of our complicated political situation doesn’t detract from the fact that unionism has a generational problem on its hands. No amount of spin is going to cut it.
Why are young people disillusioned with the union? A combination of toxic political unionism and the state of the union itself.
Young people don’t think unionist parties address their concerns. They are seen as backwards, regressive and beholden to the past. Pale, male, stale and out of touch with public opinion. Unionism isn’t cool. It isn’t cool to be a unionist in Northern Ireland.
I don’t say the above to be churlish. Constitutional identities in Northern Ireland aren’t about street cred. They come from long standing history and tradition. They’re about principles and community. Unionism has never been cool. Neither has nationalism. That’s not what it’s about it. I say what I say because I think unionism is perceived in a certain way by younger voters.
Why is unionism seen in this light? Unionism is selling the status quo and the status quo isn’t very appealing.
One hates to bring branding into this. No part of our lives, it seems, is safe from corporate individualisation. I’m not wrong when I say that “Brand UK” is in pretty bad shape.
The Financial Times reports that the UK is the sick man of Europe. A recent report states that, “Income inequality in the US & UK is so wide that while the richest are very well off, the poorest have a worse standard of living than the poorest countries like Slovenia.” That inequality it set to widen as the Tories cut taxes for the rich and grow their wealth on the backs of working people.
“Brand UK” is Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. It is Brexit. It is effluent getting discharged into the sea while food bank usage goes up across the country. It is fracking in the North Sea while the world burns. Brand UK means low wages. The brain drain. A housing crisis. It is a local GAA team having to move pitches in East Belfast because of death threats. It is an empty Stormont building during the worst cost of living crisis for a generation.
As one (pro union) friend to said to me, “It isn’t cool Britannia, it’s cringe Britannia.”
What is the alternative on offer to Northern Ireland’s youth? I respect pro united Ireland activists on the left who admit that the Republic is not much better than the UK. If partition falls, they tell me, the Republic must fall, and they will build a better future. They genuinely envision a new country. Unfortunately for the left, the future they want doesn’t look likely.
Peel back the layers of a “New Ireland” you get the same old, same old. Neoliberalism will rule the day. The public sector in Northern Ireland will be gutted and the free market will save us. FDI and multi-national corporations will run the show, but you won’t get statutory sick pay.
The “New Ireland” on offer reads like a Thatcherite fantasy. The only difference, the crucial difference, between it and the UK is that it comes with nice, liberal aesthetics. For some young people, “Brand Ireland,” is a friendlier, nicer option than the UK. Such is the toxicity of the union brand, not being the UK is enough to make the alternative attractive.
Smart unionists know that a border poll will not be easy. On the Shrapnel podcast, Robbie Butler stated that, “It’s not enough to offer the status quo anymore.” Groups are forming to make the pro union case and activists are arguing for better. People know what needs to be done.
The problem is that some unionists are still in denial. “The union sells itself,” Jim Allister said in a recent interview. Arlene Foster is launching a foundation called, ‘Better Together UK’ that aims to, “highlight the benefits of the union.”
In recent weeks I’ve seen the hashtag #unionforall being used by unionists on social media. Arlene Foster says that the union is inclusive and forward thinking. The same argument was made by Emma Little Pengelly on The View this week.
This strategy isn’t going to work. The slogan the “The union works for all,” isn’t going to land with young people when it is used by the DUP. The DUP are the problem. The Tories, currently sitting in Downing Street and destroying the country from the inside, are the problem. How does the union work for all, people ask, when the non unionist population is being ignored and belittled?
People will argue that the Northern Irish identity is growing, that young people are a part of this phenomenon and unionists can take comfort in it. Yes, they can. They should disabuse themselves of the notion that it will save them.
Sinn Fein can’t speak to the Northern Irish identity. They can’t sell a united Ireland to the middle ground either. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the SDLP can. The Alliance party can. The Green party can. These parties will not be singing, ‘Up the Ra.’ They’ll be saying the complete opposite. Their pitch to voters will be this: we love Northern Ireland too. You want to make Northern Ireland better? Vote for a united Ireland.
Everything about the current unionist strategy to save the union screams, ‘Britain Stronger in Europe 2016: The union is fine as it is. Voters must be told that the union is good for them.
You’d expect Brexit voting unionists to know better. It isn’t enough to sell the union anymore. The union must be better. Northern Ireland must be better.
A few years ago, a pro union friend took part in a debate about the constitutional question. During the debate another panellist, who supports a united Ireland, said, “Facts don’t matter.” The panellist is, unfortunately, right.
Ireland’s Future is hosting a conference on October 1st. Forget about the attendees from a protestant/unionist background (they’re unlikely to say anything unique or original). The most important attendee going is Ailbhe Smyth, one of the three co-ordinators of the Together for Yes campaign. Smith is incredible. She knows the power of storytelling and what it takes to shift mountains. She knows how to run a positive, successful campaign.
Emotion will win the day when a border poll comes. The best storyteller will get through to undecided voters. The story being sold to younger voters is that a united Ireland offers them a better, hopeful future. It is a ticket out of the UK, a way to bring about change. If the pro union campaign can’t offer them hope, they will take the out.
People can be convinced, minds can be changed and events, as we know, can move mountains. We have no idea how the next few years are going to pan out.
And yet…talking to a younger family member about this article, I mention the phrase, ‘Union for all.’ They belly laugh for a good minute. “Loada shite,” they say.
We all know what needs to be done. We know because we’ve heard it all before.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.