Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Our parties must look to 2012 and not 1912 or 1916

Flagging up the future: a lot has changed for unionists and nationalists since Sir Edward Carson signed the 1912 Covenant
Flagging up the future: a lot has changed for unionists and nationalists since Sir Edward Carson signed the 1912 Covenant

The Covenant centennial drums have fallen silent. The ranks of marching men and bands have melted away. The entire community can be thankful that the first major anniversary of the 21st century has passed relatively peacefully.

A little common sense and a willingness to see the other side's point of view, so often lacking in the past, has prevailed crucially on this occasion.

We are left to face life in 2012, not 1912, and, perhaps, to ponder on where Northern Ireland will be a century from now: still in the United Kingdom, or in a united Ireland, or perhaps a statelet of a united Europe?

Saturday's demonstration through the streets of Belfast was about an age-old issue - the question of identity. How do we see ourselves? As British, Irish or whatever?

Edward Carson, the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the Easter Rising all define a divided history and the anniversaries drive us into our respective corners - Protestant, unionist and British in one corner; Catholic, nationalist and Irish in the other.

How would you describe yourself? Or, perhaps, you feel none of these labels are appropriate any longer in 2012 and that it's time to define your identity differently. In thinking that, you might not be alone.

At a recent Ulster Covenant debate in Belfast's Linen Hall Library, I shared a platform with two academics from Belfast and Dublin, who presented their analysis of how people across the island see themselves in terms of their identity.

The research, carried out over two decades, provides increasingly convincing evidence that the old labels of constitutional allegiance do not apply to as many people as before.

More unionists - particularly the younger generation - like to call themselves 'northern Irish', while a majority of Catholics seem content to remain in the UK for the foreseeable future.

All the political parties would do well, if they haven't already done so, to study the research from the University of Ulster/Queen's University's Ark project and from the Institute of British and Irish Studies in Dublin.

Dr Paula Devine, from Queen's, outlined some trends shown in surveys carried out since 1989.

While the vast majority of Protestants still describe themselves as British and unionist, a significant number are 'northern Irish', particularly among the younger and more educated.

In 1989, only 16% would use the label 'northern Irish'. By 2010, that figure had almost doubled - to 29%.

Professor John Coakley, from the Institute of British and Irish Studies, set out the changing constitutional mood among Catholics.

The gap between those who wish to remain part of the UK and those who want Irish unity has widened significantly in recent years.

A majority of Catholics, who see themselves as Irish, would not vote unionist and do not consider themselves British, appear to prefer life within the UK to Irish unity. Only one-in-five supports the latter.

The research also shows that the four most westerly counties of Northern Ireland now have a Catholic majority. It seems only a matter of time before Catholics are in a majority over the entire territory.

The major parties, unionist and nationalist, cannot ignore the significance of this research. They must surely revise their future strategy to take account of the wind of change which has blown across this island in the past decade.

Nationalism is not what it was, but neither is unionism. The parties on each side of the old constitutional divide need to revise their priorities based on 2012, rather than 1912, or 1916.

The unionist parties are in search of a lost generation of Protestant voters, whose apathy has led to the demise of the Ulster Unionist Party.

However, an even bigger challenge now presents itself from the Catholic community. The problem for both the unionist parties is that they have absolutely no sense of Irishness about them.

They equate Irishness with nationalism and republicanism and see unionism as solely the protector of Protestant, Orange, Ulster-Scots culture.

Faced with what seems like the inevitable loss of a Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, the unionist parties need to do what they have failed to achieve since Carson signed the Covenant: they need to find a way to embrace Irish culture as they have done the Ulster-Scots. They need to show that their parties are not a cold house for the Irish lifestyle.

That will take much more than a token visit to a GAA ground; it will require a sea-change in unionist thinking in the next few years.

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