Friday 30 September 2016

New minority in the North will have to improve its civic manners

Published 01/01/2013 | 17:00

THE trouble for Unionists was not that the Union Jack was 'torn down' from Belfast's City Hall, as they hysterically claimed – it was that it was voted down.

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Unionists no longer dominate the city council and won't again, because, the new census shows, the Protestant people who elect them are now in a minority in the North and in its capital.

The reason one of the placards at the thuggish protests that ruined the city's Christmas read, "Democracy Doesn't Work", is because it does.

The decision to restrict the flying of the Union Jack was one taken after a lengthy process which included a public consultation, a recommendation from the Equality Commission, a debate in the council chamber, and a vote.

Nationalists wanted to cease flying the flag. Unionists wanted to continue to fly it 365 days a year.

Alliance, with the balance of power, proposed the compromise and Sinn Fein and the SDLP accepted it. Unionists refused to compromise and were outvoted. Democracy.

The mayhem which followed showed Unionism to be full of heartbreak for the good old days. Back then, Nationalists could be kept firmly in place by the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, an array of draconian laws aptly named 'special powers', and a police force that was armed and Protestant.

In 1921, when King George V opened the Northern Ireland parliament in Belfast, there were protests in Fermanagh.

A Sinn Fein councillor took down the Union Jack and the council pledged allegiance to Dail Eireann. The new parliament simply passed a bill empowering it to dissolve disobedient local authorities.

The 2011 census confirms that all has changed and changed utterly. For the first time, the Protestant community has fallen to the extent that it now makes up less than half of the population. Of the North's 1.8 million citizens, 48pc are Protestant, 45pc are Catholic and the rest are of different religions or no religion.

Some of the most blatantly sectarian outrages of recent weeks occurred in places with a strong Protestant majority and recent history of putting Catholics in their place. There were attempts to stomp down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown. Carrickfergus in Co Antrim, is 80pc Protestant, and less than 10pc Catholic. The Union Jack flies 365 days a year over the town hall.

Masked Loyalists waving Union Jacks stormed a council meeting, ordered it to be abandoned, smashed furniture and intimidated councillors. It was, as one brave young Ulster Unionist councillor asserted, "an attack on democracy". Disappointingly, he went on to say that what was needed was to get more Unionists out to vote to secure their old majority across NI.

The most disadvantaged parts of the North have not prospered under the new regime at Stormont. They are also still largely segregated. Catholics still vote Sinn Fein – though murals supporting Marian Price are like an indicator of disadvantage nowadays. In similar Unionist areas, the old energy that went into getting the DUP to oust the Ulster Unionists, has dissipated. One unionist MLA told me that in his part of East Belfast, only half of those registered now bother to vote.

But no matter what happens, Unionism will never be able to reassert its old dominance. The North is on its way to having a Catholic majority. The border areas are overwhelmingly Catholic – Derry, 75pc; Newry, 79pc. The Protestant population is ageing. There are more Catholic schoolchildren than Protestants, and with Protestant students more likely to go to colleges in Britain, the North's colleges are now predominantly Catholic.

Many of the young Protestant professionals do not return. Some of the top legal positions are now occupied by Catholic lawyers who cut their teeth challenging the unionist status quo in the courts during the Troubles.

Intriguingly, though, there is a new demographic. Sinn Fein has, of course, called for a border poll. But while 40pc polled in the census declare themselves to be British and 25pc as Irish, there is a further 21pc who declare themselves to be Northern Irish. We don't know how they would vote.

In a preamble to his fine poem, 'Of Difference Does it Make', Tom Paulin notes that in the 51-year existence of the NI parliament, only one bill sponsored by a non-Unionist member was ever passed. He compares a rare bird called the 'notawhit' to a "patient prisoner/pecking through granite with a teaspoon".

One thing is certain. Unionists will need to improve their civic manners. They had also better start praying that the new majority behaves towards the minority with a greater sense of justice and respect than the old one.

Irish Independent

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