Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

The winds of change blow us into uncharted waters

Queen Elizabeth's II visit to Ireland has been hailed a great success

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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