Firstly, and briefly, the 2021 Northern Ireland census results. We know the headline figures well by now, that the number of those who are Catholics or from a Catholic background (at 45.7%) now outnumber the number of people who are Protestants or from a Protestant (or other Christian) background (at 43.5%). Given that Northern Ireland was originally set up as a Protestant state for a Protestant people with a two thirds Protestant majority, that is a truly historic shift.
The political editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Suzanne Breen, summed up the challenge facing the Unionists, a challenge they have largely failed even to recognise over the past century of domination. “Protestant numbers have shrunk from 53% in 1991 to 43% today. No amount of wishful thinking will change that. Demographics and Brexit have done what the IRA campaign failed to do and endangered the constitutional status quo. The days of the old red white and blue dominance are over. If unionism is to have a future, it must embrace all the colours of the rainbow.”1
Breen then points out that Unionists have opposed every single attempt at liberal reform in the North. “Rarely has an opportunity been passed over to be narrow, insular and ungenerous.” She says “there is certainly a path to Irish unity, but it is not an unstoppable march.” Nationalists now use new language and new arguments in their pursuit of that unity. “Unionists will have to reinvent themselves to halt the slide, because the same old shibboleths won’t work.” Are Unionists – people and their politicians – capable of this? Some of us who know the unionist community well would have our doubts. If I were a unionist with a small ‘u’ wanting to make Northern Ireland a better and fairer place, I would be voting Alliance.
But neither should Northern Nationalists get too excited about the census figures, the prominent social researcher Paul Nolan, an acknowledged census expert, warns. He points out that 19.4% of the census respondents declared themselves to have hybrid identities (British/Northern Irish, Irish/Northern Irish, British/Irish/Northern Irish, British/Irish, other nationalities and so on). When you add that to the 19.8% who declared themselves ‘Northern Irish only’, you have over 39% who do not identify with the traditional unionist and nationalist blocs. “That is a big victory for diversity”, says Nolan. “It’s good news for those who favour multiple identities, complexity, fluidity.”
“There are disappointments for those hoping for a large jump in Irish identity,” Nolan wrote in an article on the Slugger O’Toole website.2 “It had been speculated that Brexit would boost the Irish identity, and while there has been an increase, it is only from 25.3% to 29.1%. If you were to include the Irish-plus hybrid identities, the percentage moves up to 33.3%, exactly one-third of the population. Set against the combined British identity of 42.8% (including the hybrids), this might give thought for those wanting to see a Border poll in the near future.”
Not a chance. Sinn Fein’s Pavlovian response to the census figures was to call for a Border poll ASAP. The Ireland’s Future group of Nationalists was trumpeting a ‘biggest ever’ mass rally in Dublin’s 3Arena last weekend. “These people are demographic determinists who don’t bother to read the demography”, says Nolan. “The ‘end of days’ millenarian atmosphere when they gather together in rallies like this one sees their fervour only increase as they make speeches to each other. With that amount of faith you don’t need facts.”
As so often, Fintan O’Toole gets it right. The non-nationalist and non-unionist citizens of the North whom he calls the ‘meh’ people now hold the balance of power there, he says. “It is people who feel attached to Northern Ireland, not as a polity but as a place, who will decide the result of any future Border poll. This surely has profound implications for what a united Ireland even means. If nationalists want to persuade a majority in the North to vote for it, they have to be able to present it in a form that does not obliterate Northern Irish identity. They have to include and sustain that sense of belonging.
“That doesn’t look like a simple offer of Dublin rule. It looks much more like a complex set of political and cultural arrangements in which Northern Ireland continues to function as a meaningful entity.”3
And now a complete switch away from the narrow ground of the North, to the wider world of Ireland, Britain and Europe. In my last blog I outlined three reasons why I believe Sinn Fein will win the next election in the Republic: people here have largely forgotten the IRA’s ‘war’; they believe SF is now a normal left-wing party; and, most importantly, they will vote overwhelmingly on ‘bread and butter’ issues like the housing crisis and poor health services.
There is also a fourth: the move among European electorates away from parties of the centre to radical populist parties of the right and left. The latest example of this was the stunning victory of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy, led by the tough-talking Giorgia Meloni, in last month’s Italian election.
In an illuminating and alarming article in Prospect magazine last month, the influential left-of-centre British commentator John Lloyd wondered if a confrontation with right-wing extremist forces – strongly at work in at least three liberal democracies – Italy, Spain and the United States – would one day come to Britain.4 Given that the liberal capitalist administrations in Britain (and Ireland) – in common with other democratic governments – have to “manage a relentless attack on living standards and preside over greater hardship for the lower paid” in the wake of the Ukraine war-provoked cost-of-living crisis, he asks whether anti-liberal forces will come to revolt against democratic politics itself. “Do we have the makings of a widespread campaign demanding a fundamental shift in wealth and political power away from elites?”
Last week I heard Jack O’Connor, former ICTU and SIPTU president and one of Ireland’s most respected left-wing voices, speaking at the Centre for Cross Border Studies annual conference, warn against taking liberal democracy for granted. He noted how few people in the world lived in such democracies: according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, only 6.4% of the world’s population live in ‘full democracies’, and the 2022 Freedom House Report said that 60 countries had seen a decline in democratic freedoms over the past year.
In an accompanying article in the 2022 Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, O’Connor argued that civil society in both parts of Ireland should organise themselves to come together to press for the maintenance of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a way of keeping a bridge “between two traditional liberal democratic allies who are ‘partners’ in a no tariffs, no quotas trade and cooperation agreement traversing the largest consumer market on the planet.” This construct should “share a similar orientation to that of the very worthy Shared Island unit, conscious of promoting ‘good neighbourliness’ for the practical benefit of all and in a manner which would not offend either side of the ‘constitutional question’ chasm, but without precluding debate.”
“Even more importantly, developing a tool to optimise the impact of organised civil society in furtherance of practical issues affecting people’s lives would also serve to deepen and strengthen representative democracy, notably in our region during a period when it is under serious threat globally.”
O’Connor believes the working class and the less well-off have been “effectively economically disenfranchised” by neo-liberal globalisation in general and the post-2008 ‘crash’ imposition of austerity in particular. John Lloyd quotes the pro-Brexit writer and firefighter Paul Embery (in his 2021 book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class) describing the contemporary working class as “the stratum of society whose members often do the toughest and most grinding jobs (consisting, for example, of physical labour or work in blue-collar industries, factories, call centres, retail or frontline services); those whose wages and social status are generally at the lower end of the scale, who own little or no property or wealth.” A large slice of this class in Britain has, in recent years, twice shown widescale dissent from their traditional support for the Labour Party: in voting for Brexit in 2016 and for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019.
“Now, with an untried Conservative prime minister succeeding Johnson, and Keir Starmer, a former barrister with limited personal appeal as Labour leader, where will this group go for a third revolt? Do these voters still identify with Labour’s values, or think the party approves of theirs?
Lloyd points out that the leaders of the organised working class – for three decades relatively quiescent -are now choosing a more forceful rhetoric, sharpened by the cost-of-living crisis, and their members’ disproportionately large part in keeping the National Health Service running, transport moving and shops open during the pandemic. Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, the UK’s biggest union, a moderate who beat the hard left to get elected to that position, told her conference in June that “poverty is a choice made by the powerful… we see the very people whose courage and dedication got the country through the pandemic now having to rely on charity.”
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, whose railway members have been on strike this summer, talks of a “wave of resistance.” “The working class is back!” he said in an uncompromising speech at the launch of the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign in August, adding, “we refuse to be poor any more.” For perhaps the first time since the 1984-1985 miners’ strikes, union leaders are orienting disputes about wages or conditions around class poverty. “This current administration acts in their class interests, it’s time to act in our class interests.” Lynch told the ‘Enough is Enough’ crowd.
During the Covid pandemic, the working classes went out to work while the middle and upper middle classes stayed at home. Research by scholars at Nottingham and Warwick universities showed that working-class women were more likely than middle-class women (or men) to have had their hours cut to zero in the first months of lockdown “with potentially severe financial consequences.” Those who kept their jobs were “far less likely to be working from the relative safety of home than women in managerial or professional roles – 80 per cent of working-class women said they were never working from home in June .” And they were “the most likely to be keyworkers in roles with close contact with customers, clients and patients.”
It is widely accepted that inequality has increased and will continue to increase in the UK (this was made crystal clear in Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s crazy ‘please the rich’ mini-budget). The share of income going to the top one per cent of the population increased in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, though lower than in the US. This is in line with rising inequality throughout the West. Bill Duker, the venture capitalist owner of a 230-foot yacht called Sybaris (named after a 7th-century Greek city famed for its wealth and excesses), was quoted in the New Yorker recently as saying: “If the rest of the world learns what it’s like to live on a yacht like this, they’re gonna bring back the guillotine.”
Left-of-centre parties everywhere have adopted what Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, terms “left modernism”. This, says Lloyd, is “a merging of leftist programmes and rhetoric with those of the professional managerial classes – to make an ideology that is destructive of tradition but supportive of a borderless universalism and rapid technological development.”
In doing this, parties of the left are downplaying policies concerned with fairness, equality and redistribution. Instead – according to Robert Skidelsky, the economic historian and biographer of Keynes – the left has shifted significantly to “questions of personal identity arising from race, gender, sexual preference and so on.” These issues, Skidelsky says, “now dominate the spaces vacated by the politics of distribution. Redressing discrimination, not addressing inequality, became the task of politics.” Centre-left politics is increasingly aimed at what has become the largest reservoir of votes – the urban middle class, who are more moved by cultural than material arguments.
There has been, for some years, a current in the British Labour Party that agrees the party is no longer a natural home for working people. In his book The Dignity of Labour, the Labour MP for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas, laments the end of the centrality of labour to the day-to-day practice of politics – especially on the left. “It is a withdrawal that has come at great cost, for it has truncated our moral critique of capitalism and hedged our anger at the degraded work our fellow citizens are forced to perform,” he writes. He points to the example of a food bank set up in Queen’s Hospital Romford in Essex for its staff: “A food bank mainlined into the public service! It tells you something about what’s happening.”
I will come back in a near-future blog to what this startling new poverty in the UK might mean for the pro-British section of the population in Northern Ireland and the future attractiveness of a united Ireland. For the moment I am only asking a question. Will the Republic of Ireland’s poor and young – many of them working in the so-called ‘precariat’ – vote for Sinn Fein, with its ‘left populist’ politics, in the next election, as a protest against what they will see as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s failure to adequately support them? It will be a supreme irony at a time of unprecedented financial strength and historically low unemployment here (not to mention last week’s ‘giveaway’ budget), but I believe they will.
1 Unionism’s fortunes are flagging…and they know exactly who is to blame, Sunday Life, 25 September
2 Census 2021: A first look shows new waves of identity innovation and an ageing society, 22 September
3 Northern Irish identity will be key factor in any Border poll, Irish Times, 27 September
4 Britain’s breaking point, Prospect, 8 September
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.