Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

The winds of change blow us into uncharted waters

Queen Elizabeth's II visit to Ireland has been hailed a great success
Queen Elizabeth's II visit to Ireland has been hailed a great success
Queen Elizabeth inspected an Irish Guard of Honour after arriving at Aras an Uachtarain
Garda clashed with protesters in a street in Dublin after Queen Elizabeth arrived in the country for her four-day state visit
The Queen at the Aras an Uachtarain.
The Queen shakes hands with Irish President Mary McAleese after arriving at Aras an Uachtarain (The Irish President's official residence) in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland.
Protestors make their way down a street in Dublin after the Queen arrived in the country for a four day state visit.
Protestors make their way down a street in Dublin after the Queen arrived in the country for a four day state visit.
Protestors make their way down a street in Dublin after the Queen arrived in the country for a four day state visit.
The signatures of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh are seen in the visitors book at Aras An Uachtarain in Phoenix Park, Dublin
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams speaks to the media in front of the Dublin Monaghan Bombings memorial in Dublin city centre, in response to the royal visit by Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth II holds a posy of flowers given to her by eight-year-old Rachel Fox after she was greeted by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore upon arrival at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel
Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Baldonnel Airport on the Royal Flight on May 17, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland.
Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Baldonnel Airport on the Royal Flight on May 17, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland.
Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Baldonnel Airport on the Royal Flight on May 17, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh are greeted by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore (front) upon arrival at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, ahead of a four day state visit.
Queen Elizabeth II is greeted by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore upon arrival at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel
Irish Army Rangers are seen at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, ahead of the arrival of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.
A sticker on a lamppost critical of the state visit to Ireland by the Queen.
Princess Elizabeth of York in 1927
George V with Queen Mary visiting Ireland in 1911, the last reigning monarchs to visit.Queen Victoria visiting Dublin in 1900
A poster is seen on a lamp post in advance of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh's visit on May 16, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland.
PRESIDENT MARY ROBINSON AND QUEEN ELIZABETH
George V with Queen Mary visiting Ireland in 1911, the last reigning monarchs to visit.Queen Victoria visiting Dublin in 1900
The Royal Standard flag flies from an Irish pub ahead of the state visit to Ireland by the Queen on May 16, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland.
Members of the public walk past phone boxes taped shut by police ahead of the state visit to Ireland by the Queen
Picture dated 1935 showing Princess Elizabeth sitting in the studio of Hungarian sculptor Sigismund de Strobl (background).
NI visit 1949. The young Princess Elizabeth visits Northern Ireland.
Gardai and security outside the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin city centre, ahead of the royal Visit by Britain's Queen of Elizabeth II and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh this week.
People walk past graffiti in Dublin city centre, ahead of the royal visit by Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II meets Dame Helen Mirren at a reception to celebrate young people in the performing arts, at Buckingham Palace
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh arrive at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, for a four day state visit.
The 8th Royal Hussars lead the procession for King George V and Queen Mary down Grafton Street,Dublin during the Royal Visit in 1911
WINSTON CHURCHILL MEETS QUEEN ELIZABETH II
KING GEORGE V1865-1936
King George V, arriving at Belfast City Hall accompanied by Queen Mary to the opening of the first Ulster Parliament. 22/6/1921.
King George V1 (VI) : Coronation on May 12th 1937. The Royal family robed and crowned on the balacony of Buckingham Palace after the coronation, with the princesses.
Princess Elizabeth with her grandparents King George V and Queen Mary; and Snip the King's Cairn terrier, 1928.
Princess Elizabeth of York in 1927
20/11/1947 Princess Elizabeth, now Queen, and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, now the Duke of Edinburgh with their eight bridesmaids in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace, on their wedding day.
King George V, at Belfast City Hall accompanied by Queen Mary to the opening of the first Ulster Parliament. 22/6/1921.
Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret riding a rocking horse at St. Paul's Waldenbury in August 1932
Princess Elizabeth of York with lilies in 1929
Princess Elizabeth (who became Queen Elizabeth II). The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Princess Elizabeth (who became Queen Elizabeth II) playing with Victorian glasses. The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The Duchess of York with Princess Elizabeth (who became Queen Elizabeth II). The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth:Coronation 1953/Visit to Northern Ireland. In Ballymena.
Queen Elizabeth:Coronation 1953/Ulster Celebrations. Coronation Book Display. 4/6/1953
Queen Elizabeth:Coronation 1953/Ulster Celebrations. Beechill, Lisburn. 30/5/1953
Queen Elizabeth:Coronation 1953/Ulster Celebrations. Loopland Drive Party.
2/6/1953, of the coronation in Westminster Abbey of Britainís Queen Elizabeth II. 50 years on the anniversary will be marked later Monday June 2, 2003, with a service in the Abbey, attended by members of the Royal family, invited guests and 1,000 members of the public.
2/6/1953. Bishops pay homage to Queen Elizabeth II, at her coronation.

So 73% of people in Northern Ireland want to remain within the United Kingdom. The opinion poll, conducted by a joint Queen's University/University of Ulster team, may raise eyebrows, but it cannot be dismissed lightly.

It is the latest in more than a decade of authoritative Life and Times surveys conducted by the same respected group in Northern Ireland. This was no mickey mouse vox-pop. It was professionally organised and covered a representative sample of the public. It was properly weighted to take account of geographic and social class differences. Even if the results were 10% inaccurate, they would still indicate a radical change in Catholic views.



Previous polls conducted over the past decade have established bench-marks against which the new findings can be judged. Where once less than 20% of Catholics preferred living within the UK to a united Ireland, that figure is now 52%. The change in attitudes can be traced back to 2007, coinciding with agreement over a new Executive at Stormont dominated by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein.



The Republic's economy began a nose-dive around the same time from which it has not recovered. The combination of an acceptable Stormont partnership and an unattractive southern state appears to have had significant influence on Catholic opinion in Northern Ireland. And why not?



If it is the case that people here no longer pay unquestioning political allegiance along sectarian lines so much the better. If it is the case that simply waving a flag across someone's nose is insufficient to win his or her vote, so be it. And if it is the case that our political parties may have to adjust and accept that superficial drum-beating rhetoric is not enough and that we, the voters, need to hear more convincing arguments from them, so be it also.



A wind of change is blowing across Northern Ireland and the Republic. The unionist north is having to embrace more of a sense of Irishness. From the evidence of the Queen's visit, the nationalist south is not as anti-British as many thought. Of course, these are early days and the ridiculous rioting in east Belfast last week is a warning that the new Northern Ireland has not exorcised all its sectarian ghosts.



The opinion poll findings lead to the conclusion that many Catholics can see with their own eyes that a united Ireland in the foreseeable future makes economic nonsense. In that respect they are no different from Scottish or Welsh nationalists whose vote for the SNP or Plaid Cymru cannot be taken as meaning they want to live outside the UK. Like Sinn Fein, the SNP may argue for a referendum on independence but would they really want to see it happening now or care to read the outcome?



The aspiration of nationalists is becoming more difficult to define the longer the recession lasts. London's billions of annual subvention to this part of the UK are essential to Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist alike, but it is the latter which is most dependent and all the more so in the current climate.



Sinn Fein and the SDLP may find excuses but they surely cannot ignore the opinion poll findings. For example Margaret Ritchie made Irish unity her number one priority presumably in an effort to outgun Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams talked up the possibilities of unity by 2016. Neither point of view looks remotely plausible.



Unionist leaders should not confuse a desire of many Catholics to embrace Irish culture and tradition with any pressing need to be part of a united Ireland. As David Cameron said recently, the UK is a multi-cultural mix of colour, class and creed in which the Irish, no less than the Scots or the Welsh, play an essential role.



The challenge for the Democratic Unionist party and Ulster Unionists is to create a welcoming house for Catholics, who cherish their Irishness but also know upon which side their bread is buttered. Maybe it is asking too much to expect many Catholics to vote unionist but at the very least unionism needs to shrug off its sectarian shackles and recognise that the world is changing as evident in the opinion poll findings.



There are many signs - and not just the ones renaming streets in the Irish language - which suggest a broadening of cultural horizons in this part of the island. More mutual respect than ever before is apparent between the Dublin government and Stormont Executive. The same applies to the vastly-improved relationship between London and Dublin.



The opinion pollsters have provided food for thought - and change - for unionist, nationalist and republican political leaders alike. A united Kingdom? A united Ireland? We are moving into uncharted waters where it appears more people – certainly many more Catholics – are thinking with the head rather than the heart. Can our political parties and leaders recognise that and rise to the challenge? If they don’t, the wind of change may blow some of them away.

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