Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: If there ever is a united Ireland, it will come about not because of the IRA and Sinn Fein, but in spite of them

A Catholic majority does not necessarily mean the end of the border either, though it might, writes Malachi O'Doherty

They called it, unkindly, the Chicken Run. As the prospect of independence for Rhodesia drew closer, thousands of people who had grown up there but feared for the future got out. Mostly they were white, had been born there, and had sprung from previous generations of European settlers.

Those northern Protestants and others who are now announcing that they would leave a united Ireland because they would be more at home somewhere else than in the streets and towns they grew up in should reflect on that Rhodesian experience.

This started with a simple question from Paddy Kielty, put to Arlene Foster, our former First Minister. She was not prepared for it, and perhaps gave an answer she would not have had she been given more time to think.

She said she would leave if there was a united Ireland. She would leave Fermanagh, where she grew up on a farm, where she went to school, from Lisnaskea, where her siblings and other relations still live, where she has for years wooed the votes of friends and neighbours and a wider community.

She was not estranged from Fermanagh when other Irish people there shot her father and bombed her school bus. But if the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to unite Ireland, inside the European Union, she would leave, and she doesn't know where she would go. But if the government was sitting in Dublin she believes she would be more at ease in Birmingham or Glasgow or, perhaps, the lakelands of Cumbria, though it is a bit hillier there than around the Erne.

I simply don't believe this.

I can imagine that it would gall her if the IRA appeared to have won in a cause which her family resisted by staying put in Fermanagh, but if a united Ireland is ahead of us, and I believe it might be, she can surely reason through to the obvious, that it will not have been brought about by Sinn Fein and the IRA.

The only people who can deliver a united Ireland are those who will have changed their minds to tilt a vote where it would not otherwise go; and they are not the traditional republicans of the border counties and the housing estates of Derry and Belfast; they are people who opposed the IRA campaign.

They were people who did what she apparently cannot comprehend doing; they stayed in a jurisdiction in which they were not fully at home, contributed to it and made it work.

They are mostly Catholics or former Catholics who have been small 'u' Unionists.

They knew that unionism, as expressed through the two big unionist parties, had no space within to accommodate their silent assent to the Union, but they assented all the same.

New research from Dr Paul Nolan has a bearing on this. It feels strange to call him Dr, since I usually call him Paul, as in, "Will you have another pint, Paul?", so much at home are he and I in this British jurisdiction.

Paul's research shows that we are approaching a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland, perhaps by the centenary of the founding of the state.

That does not mean the end of the border - though it might, because voting for a united Ireland is now a route back into the European Union if Brexit proves uncongenial, as many fear it will. But those of us who would vote that way, to change the way in which we are governed, would not have to move house to Dundalk or Letterkenny. I doubt if many are thinking of anything as drastic as that.

What the Catholic majority does mean is the end of a unionist majority, in effect, the end of a unionism that feels it can do without Catholic support. The Catholic support that was there in the form of silent assent from people who were treated as outsiders now has to become tangible. It no longer makes sense to try to secure the Union through a political party that is made up only of Protestants.

It makes even less sense to try to secure the Union through a specifically evangelical Protestantism.

Were a new Ian Paisley to arise today, talking as he did in the 1970s, asserting the need to shore up Protestant Ulster against the hordes from Rome, there would be a united Ireland in the morning, for Protestant Ulster is dead and gone.

As the reality of this sinks in, there may be some who would rather leave Northern Ireland now, who might think there is little point in raising children and committing to a long mortgage in a state that is transforming into something they always dreaded. A Chicken Run from the busted lean-to of Protestant Ulster would only accelerate the change, deliver a united Ireland much earlier.

John Taylor, Lord Kilclooney, stayed even after he was shot, continued to work for his political vision and to build his business. He is right when he ripostes on Twitter to Owen Polley: "The unionist community is undermined by people like you who would run away at the first chance!". Polley argues that if there was a united Ireland there would be no place for unionism "because there would be no Union to defend".

This misses an important point. If unionism was only about defending the Union it would have room in it for Catholic assenters, and it hasn't. That is because it is about Protestantism, monarchy, social conservatism, and reverence for the British Army and imperial history. But a unionism that has more to it than defence of the Union would surely have a continuing identity in a united Ireland. Or is it really so insubstantial that it would whither in the first breeze?

Not my problem, anyway. I am glad that we have the option in years to come of voting ourselves back into the European Union through a border poll, that we have a resort that is not available to Scotland or London, where majorities also voted against Brexit.

This allows me the prospect of a retreat from a problem I did not create. And if I put my X on a card for Irish unity it will not be because I feel the shades of O'Neill and Pearse and Adams at my shoulder, but because unionists in their folly thought they could preserve an Ulster that was already an anachronism.

Unlike Foster, I may be able to restore the circumstances in which I would feel more at home without even having to leave my street.

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