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The future might be green, it might be orangeish-green, or greenish-orange... what it will not be is orange

Liam Kennedy

But an emergent middle ground could still thwart Sinn Fein's united Ireland aspirations, argues Liam Kennedy


The Irish Tricolour and the Union Jack adorning lamp-posts in Windsor for the historic visit of President Michael D Higgins to England in 2014

The Irish Tricolour and the Union Jack adorning lamp-posts in Windsor for the historic visit of President Michael D Higgins to England in 2014

Getty Images

The Irish Tricolour and the Union Jack adorning lamp-posts in Windsor for the historic visit of President Michael D Higgins to England in 2014

Some say the world is divided into optimists and pessimists. In the small world of Northern Ireland we find ourselves divided into nationalists and unionists.

Some say the nationalists are the optimists and unionists the pessimistic ones. Anecdotally there is some evidence for this.

Who will forget the DUP's alarmist pronouncement after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement that Northern Ireland was on the window-ledge of the Union? That was a quarter-century ago.

An equally silly prediction by republicans was that the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 2016 would be celebrated with a united Ireland.

While republican wishful thinking and loyalist apocalyptic apprehensions were both wide of the mark, it would be intriguing to trace these political personality traits back to their well-springs.

Perhaps the answer - assuming the generalisation has some validity - goes back to differing religious cultures.

Let me, possibly in equally foolhardy fashion, make my own predictions about the future of Northern Ireland.

But I do want to hedge my bets by outlining two scenarios situated at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

First up is the triumph of Sinn Fein and the dawning of a united Ireland. The reasons to predict this - and possibly justify a trip to the bookies - might run as follows.

The most passionate, ruthless and best-resourced political force on the island of Ireland is Sinn Fein.

Its public representatives are steered by a tight group of veterans from the days of the "armed struggle", they are mainly located in Belfast and they served their political apprenticeship in the Maze Prison. These veterans may or may not be members of the army council of the IRA in another guise.

Politics is accepted within the movement as war by other means and controversies around Orange marches, the Irish language, Brexit and even the current crisis are welcomed as opportunities to substitute one form of conflict for another.

The republican reflex is struggle. The pay-off is the discomfiture of unionists, the sapping of their morale and the odour of anticipated victory.

Notions of compromise rarely enter the vocabulary of these brothers-in-arms, nor do they hold sentimental assumptions that unionists will one day see the light. They know the "other" only too well.

Unionist opposition to a united Ireland must be crushed, though in less brutal ways than in the past. At a meeting in Enniskillen in 2014 Gerry Adams spoke of the "Trojan horse" of equality, which might be used to "break these b******s".

He later clarified his remarks to mean he was not referring to all unionists, just the bigoted ones.

This sense of realpolitik dictates a fight to the finish, relying first and last on the Catholic population. The gateway is through a border poll.

One of the provisions in the Belfast Agreement is that if the Secretary of State deems it likely at some point that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland would wish "to cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland", then he is obliged to hold such a poll and give expression to these wishes.

Outside of graveside orations the defining feature of republicanism, of uniting "Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter", has been largely discarded. Demographic dynamics - in crude terms Catholics outbreeding Protestants - is the future.

Some republicans might go a little further and see merit in compounding the pressure on Protestants by making the social and cultural environment of Northern Ireland as uncomfortable as possible for unionists with a view to promoting Protestant out-migration (a cold house option unionists were happy to visit on Catholics in the days of Stormont).

Some external events, such as Scottish independence, might accelerate the seemingly inevitable. Similarly, if the economy of the Republic raced ahead of Britain and Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit world, so much the better.

With so many planets coming into alignment, the arrival of the day of Irish unity by one means or another seems a plausible endgame.

An alternative scenario might posit a very different future. A striking feature of recent elections in Northern Ireland has been the strengthening of the middle ground.

The largest centre party is Alliance. In last year's European election Alliance increased its share of the vote by 160% as compared to its previous outing in 2014.

In the more recent UK general election of December 2019 Alliance more than doubled its voting share as compared to the previous general election in 2017. Only a small minority of its members favour Irish unity.

The SDLP has also regained electoral ground. Some commentators discern a movement away from the orange and green extremes.

There are two other straws in the wind. According to the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey for 2018, a full 50% of respondents described themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. This finding was more pronounced among women and the younger age groups.

Within the sub-group of Catholics almost half (48%) did not label themselves as unionist or nationalist.

These tendencies run counter to the crude demographic argument. The position of pro-Union Catholic voters, it might be added, is eased by Westminster subsidies, a large state sector, vigorous anti-discrimination laws and other measures that protect individuals and minorities.

Doubts may also be found on the other side of the border which, by implication, suggests that devolved government within the UK may have a long-term future.

As long as northern nationalism wears a Sinn Fein mask it is unlikely to prove attractive to large numbers of southern voters.

The leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin respectively, have set their faces against accepting a bare majority - 50%-plus-one - vote for Irish unity.

Majoritarian rule in the north did not work that well in the past and would be unlikely to work much better in the future simply because the boot was on the other foot. So, a degree of cross-community consensus would be required.

Taking on the burden of the £10bn annual subsidy from Westminster to prop up living standards in the north, whether in whole or in part, might be something of a consideration for the Republic's taxpayers.

Additional security costs for the Irish army and police - and possibly some unpleasant working conditions - might also weigh in the balance.

Not unlike the weather most days in Ireland, the future seems far from settled. The distant skyline might be green, it might be orangeish-green, or greenish-orange, or some new colour compound prepared by Dublin and London. It will certainly not be orange.

It may even be that the future lies with those best adapted to living with constitutional uncertainty.

Liam Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of History at Queen's University Belfast. His most recent book is Unhappy The Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, The Irish? (Kildare: Merrion Press, 2015). His Who Was Responsible For The Troubles?: The Northern Ireland Conflict, 1966-98 will be published by McGill-Queen's University Press in September

Belfast Telegraph