Belfast Telegraph

With its majority gone, it's vital unionism understands the new Catholic sense of identity

Brexit and the declining influence of the Church could prove pivotal, says Malachi O'Doherty

Last week I was asked to launch a new collection of academic essays. It was the hardest job I had ever taken on, if the point was to sell copies of the book.

The Contested Identities Of Ulster Catholics (Palgrave, edited by Paul Burgess) costs a penny short of a hundred pounds, so there was no queue at all for it.

Academic publishers are only concerned to sell to libraries, but this book has a relevance that would make it valuable reading for our politicians and commentators.

In my launch speech I said that the biggest change on the political scene in Northern Ireland in my eventful lifetime is that the Union has become dependent on support from the Catholic community.

This has to be understood and engaged with by anyone interested in preserving the Union or dispensing with it.

Some people have not caught onto this yet. Theresa May has.

In a conversation she was reported to have had with Jacob Rees-Mogg last year, she is said to have expressed a fear that the "moderate nationalists" - her phrase - would react to a hard Brexit by opting for a united Ireland.

More recently, Newsnight reported that the Secretary of State - who should perhaps read this book, too, and a few others I could suggest - had decided not to call an election to the Assembly because a nationalist majority would leave her with no argument against a border poll.

On the other hand we have David Trimble and others arguing that the fear of a growing demand for a united Ireland is being whipped up by Sinn Fein and that it has no substance.

Unionism, it strikes me, is being uncommonly blithe about the changing context, having arguably overreacted in the past when it thought that the IRA was a real threat to the integrity of the UK, an estimation of the clout of republicans which was shared only by republicans themselves.

So the people who panicked in the past say there is no need to panic now, though the circumstances are radically different.

But it is good they are not panicking. It's not so good that they are not noticing the breadth of change.

The first big change is that the unionist majority has gone. The proportionate rise in the Catholic population that was the bogey of much unionism throughout the history of Northern Ireland has arrived.

John Coakley, a contributor to the book, tells us it is expected that the 2021 census will reflect a Catholic majority.

This means that the Protestant Ulster that Ian Paisley senior sought to defend has gone.

The argument that the Union must be preserved to prevent Protestant Ulster being absorbed into its Romish neighbour is obsolete. An ex-argument.

So one of the traditional props of the Union, the call to arms in defence of the faith, is now only of historic interest. There can be no Union now other than one endorsed cross-community.

Yet there is a sectarian assumption at work there too, that identity matters more to Protestants than it does to Catholics.

Indeed, Anthony McIntyre alludes to this as a reality in his chapter where he says that unionists are much more concerned to defend the Union than nationalists are to get rid of it.

The implication is that unionists preserve the Union out of love for it, a passionate sense that their identity relies on it.

Catholics are different - they are more concerned about what side their bread is buttered on. But this diagnosis is tested by Brexit.

We may be discovering, through this experiment, aspects of the character of the northern Catholic community that we hadn't weighed up before, like a possible preference among many - enough to make a difference - for mending relations in the North over uniting the island into a single jurisdiction. Who of us doesn't feel more at home in Ballymena than in Ballinasloe?

But that is not the only question.

A conjunction of phenomena has emerged like a startling planetary alignment.

Catholic Ireland is being dissolved. Even if there still was a Protestant majority, and if Paisley was at his thunderous best, he could no longer claim that the Republic is a Catholic state being manipulated by the Papacy.

In fact, the idea is so laughable that some among us may need reminded that this was a powerful conviction in play during the Troubles period.

At the same time as we have a loosening of the grip of the Church over Irish Catholics, appalled by abuse scandals and entering into the general European trend towards secularisation, we have a counter force in the North in the form of the DUP, determined to resist same-sex marriage and abortion law reform.

So, at a time when we might have seen chauvinistic rages settle down, we have a new dividing line.

And this has led to disaffection with devolution in the North among Catholics and nationalists.

We can trace the collapse of Stormont to the RHI scandal and the denial of a standalone Irish Language Act, but if we look to why so many people don't seem to care if it comes back or not, among Catholics and nationalists, distaste for the DUP and a lack of enthusiasm for restoring to it the power to block social reform is, I think, primary.

I suspect even Sinn Fein has been taken by surprise by this.

So forces are in play that were not in play during the Troubles: the demographic shift, secularisation North and South, and an aversion to the social conservatism of the DUP.

And Brexit.

Which might turn out fine.

Many serious unionists are confident that the Catholic community can be relied on, in sufficient numbers, to endorse the Union - though never calling themselves unionists - so we'll put Stormont back up and either make a new bigger deal to secure it, or hobble on to the next breakdown.

But crucially, if the Protestant majority was the prop that secured the Union for a century, cross-community support is the only prop that can sustain it further, and that means that the de facto unionists in the Catholic community have to be kept onside.

Recognising that Catholic community support from now on must be a cornerstone of the Union, or there will be no Union, requires an appeal to the northern Catholic sense of identity in a future that may not include a British economy that is stronger than an Irish one.

Who can say our butter won't be on the other side of the piece in a decade from now anyway?

The Contested Identities Of Ulster Catholics, edited by Paul Burgess, is published by Palgrave, £99.99

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