Earlier this year, when the Rich List for Northern Ireland was published , there was one little detail that went completely unnoticed -- well over half of those on it were Catholics.
Places one, two and three were all filled by Catholics. The richest part of Belfast, the Malone Road -- think Ballsbridge in Dublin 4 -- now has a Catholic majority. Across the city, at least 75 per cent of the Victorian red-brick villas in the leafy avenues leading off the upper Antrim Road -- think Clontarf -- are owned by Taigs. They drive big cars and have holiday homes, many in Donegal, but more and more they are jetting off to exotic locations where they dine and play golf alongside their fellow arriviste multi-millionaires from the Republic.
The next time you are in Belfast, drive along the Lisburn Road, which runs parallel with the Malone Road, and check out the boutiques and cafes. There is an exhibition opening in one or other of the art galleries at least twice a week in season. High-end retail in Belfast is booming. In the city centre, the local jewellers, Lunn's, has gone from one to three stores in recent years, the latest branch opening in the city's spectacular new shopping centre, Victoria Square. Jigsaw, the top-end UK ladies fashion chain, which closed its Grafton Street store in 2006 to the dismay of many of its southern customers, has just opened outside the new Victoria Square and is reported to be doing very nicely.
Chris Sherry, editor of the Ulster Tatler, the North's social and personal monthly, refers to the Lisburn Road as getting a "bit like Kensington". Ulster Tatler, the bible of Ulster's social elite, has, according to consultants Millward Brown, 279,000 readers. In response to the consumer buzz surrounding the Lisburn Road, it launched a new magazine, South Belfast Life, a few years ago. "It's doing fine," says Chris.
If you want to see the North's rich living it big, check out the annual Waterloo Ball charity bash organised by the Lord Taverners. They flew in Bryan Ferry this year. Top of the raffle list is one of the last remaining Back to the Future De Loreans.
Hold on a second. Isn't Northern Ireland supposed to be, er, depressed, like, after three decades of terrorist violence? Aren't the Catholics supposed to be "oppressed" like Gerry Adams keeps banging on about and the Southern meeja still seems to believe? Bertie Ahern certainly thought so when he gave €580m (yes, €580 million) of our money to build roads in the North after the St Andrew's Agreement. Incidentally, if it does go to road building, the bulk of it will go to very rich Catholics who dominate the construction industry in the North. Thanks, Bertie.
A Belfast property professional, interviewed to ascertain just how well Catholics are doing in the North -- after he had stopped laughing -- rhymed off a string of Catholics whose fortunes he put in the "hundreds of millions". He had heard recently that 13 private jets were on order for customers in the North. The majority, he said, were ordered . . . that's right, by Catholics.
So why do an awful lot of people in the "26 counties", as Sinn Fein and many Northern Catholics continue to refer to the Republic, still believe the myth about Catholics being "oppressed" in the North? Many people still adhere to the strange belief that the Taigs are the "most oppressed people ever", a kind of northwest European version of the Palestinians: people who have to "struggle".
What did Bobby Sands kill himself for anyway? Was it so that his fellow Northern Catholics could own jets? Drive Beemers?
Bobby would be especially bewildered by what has happened to his fellow Provos. They've let him down big time, poor schmuck. Most of them have moved up the economic ladder, and out of the oppressed "ghettos". Your average West Belfast Provo now lives in one of the new private housing developments that have sprung up in the past 20 years on the western outskirts of the city. One of the most popular with the Lads is the area where Sinn Fein MLA and former bomber, Gerry Kelly lives.
And a funny thing about the rich Provos is this: they are still looked down on by the Middle Class Catholics (MCCs).
When the Provos started buying holiday homes in Donegal, they targeted the lower half of the county. It suited them to head west along the M1, which is beside west Belfast, and head over to Donegal via Enniskillen. Around Glenties, where IRA tout Denis Donaldson was shot dead in his holiday home, is popular. Gerry Adams doesn't much care to rub shoulders with the rank and file and has his holiday gaff a little further north, at Gortahork, a place much favoured in the past by the Belfast middle-class Taigs.
The Belfast MCCs congregate further north. They drive there via the M2, north to Derry. Marks & Spencer, that definition of middle-class taste, has located a new food-only outlet just before John Hume Bridge over the Foyle to cater for them, when they stop off on their way to Donegal for the weekend. They fill up at the wine department, which saves them having to drink pints with the Gaelic-speaking yokels.
The MCCs -- remember, most of them are only one or two generations away from the "ghettos" -- are, like middle classes anywhere, smug: they love to make jokes at the expense of their social inferiors. The Malone Road and Antrim Road crowd even have a witty quip about the holiday-home class demarcation in Donegal. The Sinn Fein voters whose cottages are in the south of the county drink their lager in "Costa del Provo". The middle classes chill out and sip their M&S wine in "SDLP sur Mer".
The Shinners may now have loadsamoney, big motors and holiday homes, but they are still social death. You move to Malone ward in Belfast not only to ascend the social ladder but, more importantly, to get the hell away from west Belfast and the Provos.
Malone votes for three parties: the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance, usually in that order. There is apparently a handful of votes for the Shinners, a cause of great amusement and some speculation at dinner parties. On the Malone, they call it the "Tiocfaidh ar la-di-da vote". They joke about Sinn Fein's latest wheeze of gaelicising street signs -- done largely to annoy Prods -- and laugh at how Malone Road will become Bothar Maigh Lon.
The most ambitious and the group that most hates Sinn Fein in the MCC scene is the less rich mob: the young aspiring professionals and those in mid-ranking civil service jobs. They occupy the smaller houses on the avenues that stretch away -- but not too far away -- from the mansions on the Malone and Antrim roads. They dream of large piles on Malone Park.
This mob is as ferociously anti-Shinner as Paisleyites, but for different reasons, of course.
In the last general election, Gerry Adams had apparently convinced himself that this Catholic social stratum was ready to embrace his great love and leadership. The Shinners poured massive resources into Belfast South in the 2005 election. The growth of the Catholic middle-class vote in south Belfast meant that the seat went, for the first time, to an SDLP candidate, Dr Alastair McDonnell.
Sinn Fein candidate Alex Maskey's profile had been pumped massively by the SF machine, which made sure he appeared alongside Gerry Adams on every single "peace process" photocall -- and there were lots of them. Maskey came fourth, beating the Rainbow Dream Ticket candidate and the guy from the Workers' Party (they still have that up there).
Truth is, cross the Ormeau Bridge over the Lagan, up into those nice leafy streets, and the arriviste MCCs would rather be seen wearing shell suits and trainers than vote Sinn Fein. Gerry, baby: Middle Class Catholics define their social position primarily through the distance between themselves and you and your voters. About as many Catholics vote Sinn Fein in south and south west Belfast as in Dun Laoghaire. If you live in a part of Belfast that has a street sign in both Irish and English, any self-respecting MCC would cross the road to avoid you.
The story is the same in Foyle and south Down -- the other two Westminster constituencies where the SDLP was returned. In the last local government elections in 2005, there was a tussle between Sinn Fein and the Green Party for one of the last seats in South Down. The Greens won. In short, you can easily spot rich Catholic areas in the North at election time. They vote SDLP.
Recently, the MCCs have been in revolt over -- no, not British oppression, dummy, but over the Sinn Fein Stormont Education Minister Catriona Ruane's attempts to abolish academic selection for 11-year-olds.
The North has a secondary education system that is based on selection: children who do well in their 11-Plus exams go to grammar schools, and those who don't do too well go to "secondary" schools. Lefties and Sinn Fein hate the 11-Plus exam. But, the Catholic middle class got where they are today because they were smart and determined and they went to exceptional secondary schools where the results are exceptional.
The MCCs in the North are as nuts on education as middle classes anywhere. Grammar schools such as St Malachy's on the Antrim Road gets near-as-makes-no-difference 100 per cent of its A-Level students into third level. Twenty or 30 pupils a year from St Malachy's go to Cambridge or Oxford, making it one of the top-rated schools in the UK.
St Malachy's has wonderful facilities that make "top" schools in the Republic look just ordinary. And, get this, school-fee-paying parents of Dublin: St Malachy's is, more or less, free. All the schools in Belfast are. Those damned Brit-oppressor taxpayers pick up the tab. The poshest girl's school in Belfast, Victoria College (twinned with Rathdown in Glenageary in South County Dublin) does have fees, around £370, or about a twelfth of Rathdown's. Of course, the posh Catholics are also sending their children in larger and larger numbers to the post-Protestant/state grammars such as Royal Belfast Academic Institution, Belfast Royal Academy, Methodist College and Victoria. This is the first generation of Catholic boys and girls in the history of Northern Ireland to play rugby and hockey. This is the first generation of Protestant/state pupils to have Irish on the curriculum.
While the Catholic middle class flourishes, the Protestants aren't having such a good time. They feel oppressed now. Their sons and daughters, when they pass their A Levels, tend to go to university in Scotland and England -- and afterwards, they inevitably stay there. They don't like Queen's in Belfast because it's full of rough Sinn Fein-supporting country types who get drunk and play hurling with each other at night in the flatland around the university. The Belfast journalist, David McKittrick (working-class Prod from Shankill married to nice middle-class Catholic girl) last year made famous a new acronym that describes the flight of these young middle-class Protestants -- NIPPLES (Northern Ireland Protestant Professionals Living in England and Scotland).
OK, so life is good for the MCCs but not so much the PCCs whose children are clearing off. But at least they are all living well. Remember, they have one of the finest hospital services in Europe and, of course, that's free as well. Aneurin Bevan's free-from-cradle-to-grave health service encompassed Northern Ireland. Those damn bastard Brit oppressors at it again. The only way to spend a night on a trolley in the North is to actually demand it. And it would probably be a nice corridor.
OK, enough of the good life of the MCCs. What about those who haven't made it? What's it actually like living in a Catholic working-class ghetto? It's shite, according to people who live there and the social workers and academics who study them.
In Belfast, there are 83,000 "income-deprived" people, and an awful lot of them are Prods.
Eight out of the 10 most deprived electoral wards in Northern Ireland are in Belfast. Nine of the 10 worst "health-deprivation" wards are in Belfast. Belfast is now 47.2 per cent Catholic and 48.6 per cent Protestant, so you can guess at the maths. Maybe the income deprivation is a bit higher on the Catholic side because the Protestants have been moving out of the city to places like east Antrim where they are in a big majority.
The peace process spawned an incredible number of "community" jobs, which have proved a haven for ex-terrorists. A study by Ulster University found recently that there are 30,000 "community workers" in Northern Ireland, again, paid for by those dirty Brit taxpaying sonsabitches (although we and the other EU taxpayers have also fired in a couple of billion to help smooth the way for ex-terrorists into less destructive work).
But, nonetheless, west Belfast, Ardoyne and West Bank in Derry have gone down the plughole. These are the social and economic models of a Sinn Fein-dominated society. They are like a German Democratic Republic on the dole, and on dope.
Adams and his mates have largely decamped. On March 14 this year, Gerry was living it big in New York with his new best buddies, multimillionaire CEOs of companies such as bankers and sub-prime mortgage operators, Mutual of America and Lehman's, at Bobby Van's on 54th Street, the steak house where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack ate, drank and picked up broads.
Later that same evening, back home in the heart of west Belfast, Frank "Bap" McGreevy, a 51-year-old ex-IRA prisoner, well-known and liked in the community, was beaten to death in his home. A TV was smashed over his head as he lay unconscious in the living room of his flat on Ross Road in the lower Falls. Bap was one of the IRA people who didn't cash in on the peace process.
Years ago, the Provos would simply have kneecapped the trouble-causing youngsters, but since getting into Stormont they have had to stop the punishment beatings and shootings, which has not been popular with the electorate. The Shinners can no longer blame the Brits or the "Black Bastards" in the RUC/PSNI now that they have signed up to policing and the British Army has left for sunnier war zones.
Drink- and drug-fuelled joyriders and thugs are making life a misery and there are no IRA goon squads to break their legs any more. The Shinners set up a community restorative justice scheme -- paid for by them Brit taxpayers -- but it has been useless.
In the past year, two other local men have also been murdered as crime and drug-taking have spiralled out of control in Gerry Adams's heartland, from which he is increasingly absent. Harry Holland, another decent and popular ex-republican, was stabbed to death as he tried to stop youths stealing his van from outside his grocery shop. Another man was killed in a machete and hatchet attack at his home off the Falls Road.
In any other constituency in the UK, you might expect the local political leadership to come in for some kind of criticism. But Sinn Fein has turned west Belfast into an old-fashioned, GDR-style fiefdom and no criticism of the Great Leader is allowed.
What Adams and no one else expected was an attack from inside his own backyard. After the murder of Bap McGreevy, the local rag, The Andersonstown News, ran an anonymous column attacking Adams and his rich pals for abandoning the area to hoods and scumbags. Nothing like this had ever happened before. The newspaper owner and Adams devotee, Mairtin O Muilleoir (a former Sinn Fein councillor who was present at Bobby Van's in New York and wrote up Adams's lunch with the CEOs on his blogsite) must have been equally shocked. In the next edition, the "Andytown" carried a front-page reply from Adams denouncing the article as "offensive and hurtful" and a suitably grovelling apology from the editor and presumed author of the offending article, Robin Livingstone.
So there you have it: rich Catholics living in Brit-supported paradise. Poor Catholics living in Sinn Fein-dominated hell. Neither wants a united Ireland. And, incidentally, just in case you were thinking about it Mr Cowen, we really couldn't afford to keep them.