THE census figures in Northern Ireland are like awards ceremonies in Hollywood. People can't wait to hear the results, then immediately dismiss the whole thing as meaningless on finding out they haven't won.
Of course, census results are simply raw data. Winning and losing shouldn't come into it. But in Northern Ireland everything is a zero sum equation. If the other guy is happy, then I must have lost. If he's out rioting, then I must be winning. So it was again, as the initial realisation that the Catholic and Protestant communities were now almost neck and neck (45 and 48 per cent of the population respectively) was immediately tempered on the nationalist side with the shock of realising that only 25 per cent of those surveyed described themselves first and foremost as "Irish".
That shouldn't have been a surprise. Recent polls have confirmed the trend against nationalists wanting a united Ireland, though those were invariably rubbished on the grounds that the sample size was too small, or the methodology allegedly suspect. The census figures are harder to wish away. Everyone is asked the same questions, and can answer whatever way they like; there's no reason to lie or conceal. But you can understand the confusion. It seems so counter-intuitive that a growing nationalist population would seem to be increasingly, well, not-very-nationalist in its aspirations. That's why republicans are now demanding a border poll to find out the exact figures.
They won't get one, because the Belfast Agreement is quite clear that a poll can only be called if there is a chance of a change in the constitutional status of the North – a sensible proviso when such a vote is bound to stir up tension – and it's plain to anyone who is not in total denial that there isn't going to be a united Ireland in the short or medium term and it's irresponsible self-indulgence to pretend otherwise. Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom is secure for the foreseeable future.
If only loyalists in Belfast would realise it too. Instead they're out now for the second week in a row, wrecking their own backyard because a majority on Belfast City Council voted to remove the Union flag from above City Hall on all but 15 specially designated days of the year – just as it does above the government building in Stormont. Fearing a threat to their identity, loyalists have responded with violence, blocking roads, attacking police. Even the protests which the news reports insist are peaceful have been suffused with an air of menace and intimidation as masked men turn back cars whose drivers have every right to be on what loyalists like to call the Queen's highway.
It would be nice to find a less cruel way of explaining what is happening, but the plain truth is that working class loyalists are all too often a few flutes short of a full marching band. They've produced subtle and clever leaders, but, as a collective group, the lack of strategic nous is glaring, and middle-class Unionists have, sadly, never shown much interest in educating them in the art of getting what they want. The Prods were merely loyal footsoldiers, demographic cannon fodder, whose worth lay entirely in numbers. As those numbers declined, many Unionists have failed to provide a pathway which could give working-class Protestants the same stake in the society they claim to cherish which Catholics have found in a society they traditionally didn't even like.
The reason Catholics are now growing in confidence has nothing to do with the IRA. It was the British education system that liberated nationalists from the Orange State, using the 11 Plus and A levels as their weapons of choice. That's what forged the large Catholic middle class which, in the past decades, has flocked into the professions and the civil service and media, from which lofty perch they set about getting the equality that was hitherto denied to them. The IRA was actually hostile to this drive for equality for much of its history, because it felt it would dilute the impetus towards a united Ireland, and only belatedly hopped on board when it had no other choice.
And the IRA was dead right. Once you have a university-educated, property-owning dominant middle class, then radicalism goes out the window. You have too much stake in the status quo to welcome disorder. You don't want house prices to fall, or your children to be unemployed in an economy held hostage by extremists. The Catholic middle class may now vote for Sinn Fein as the best irresistible force to neutralise the immovable object of the DUP, but that doesn't mean they see unification as anything other than a distant cultural aspiration, any more than those who vote for Sinn Fein in the Republic care about the Border either. Both have more pressing concerns.
You could say that what fed the rise of Sinn Fein also contains the seeds of its own ultimate irrelevance as a revolutionary movement, as its internal critics always said it would. In place of real constitutional change, republicans have had to settle for symbolic progress in the social, parliamentary and cultural spheres.
Loyalists are simply not seeing the wood for the trees. As long as the Union is secure, everything else can safely be put up for negotiation and compromise without the slightest loss of identity to pro-Union people. The IRA would happily give up every Tricolour in Belfast if it was getting in return what Unionism already has, but the flag-draped loyalists on the streets don't even seem to realise that they have the best prize of all, much less that they now risk throwing it away.
Northern Ireland will remain a part of the UK only as long as they don't do anything stupid to make middle- class Catholics with mortgages and pensions, who are currently comfortable inside the Union, suddenly start to feel uncomfortable. Those people are Unionism's best defence against a united Ireland, not flags or marching bands, and, rather than alienating them with the sort of sectarian thuggery which has been displayed across Belfast in the last fortnight, Unionists should be learning from them. If there's a cultural war, after all, then the important thing is to win it, and all they're looking at now is a futile and ignominious defeat.
But that's loyalists for you. They're like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, tapping her head and declaring: "You see? Not very bright."
Only nowhere near as charming.