Monday 22 July 2019

Tectonic plates are shifting in the North as Brexit takes us into uncertain time

Loyalists make final preparations to their bonfire on the Newtownards road on the 'eleventh night' in Belfast. Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Loyalists make final preparations to their bonfire on the Newtownards road on the 'eleventh night' in Belfast. Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Tim Pat Coogan

In the wake of the Brexit disaster, as the Orangemen gather for the Twelfth, it behoves the leaders of the Green tradition to pay more attention to the real position of fundamental unionism on this island than was shown in the recent clumsy handling of the All-Ireland Forum idea which the DUP so contemptuously dismissed.

Before highlighting a situation which has an important bearing on the Unionists' position, let me recount two episodes which illustrate unionist thinking. One was related to me by the legendary Harry Diamond, the Republican Labour representative for Belfast's Dock Ward, to which the late Gerry Fitt succeeded.

One morning, back in the days of Lord Brookeborough's premiership, Diamond called in to the office of a senior Stormont civil servant seeking a favour on behalf of a constituent. He was one of the few friendly faces Diamond normally encountered at Stormont. The civil servant chuckled when Diamond entered the office saying, "Oh Harry - you'll be interested in this!" Someone on the Unionist benches had asked Brookeborough a question about the numbers of Protestants who had won decorations during World War II, expecting that the answers would highlight the loyalty of the Protestants and the corresponding disloyalty of the Catholics.

But the research showed that the Catholics had out-performed their counterparts.

The civil servant was dealing with the unwelcome outcome by the simple expedient of swapping around the statistics to favour the Protestants. Diamond could make no protest, if he did, not alone would his constituent not have their problem solved, neither would any of his other constituents henceforth.

Some 70,000 citizens of Ireland served in the British armed forces during the war, together with another 50,000 from Northern Ireland.

Incidentally, southerners won a total of 780 decorations, including seven Victoria Crosses. An eighth was won by James Magennis, a Belfast Catholic.

Another anecdote stems from Ian Paisley's days marching under banners bearing the slogan: 'CRA (Civil Rights Association) equals IRA'. Standing before a crowd of Belfast loyalists, he accused his hearers of being cowards and produced a list containing the names and addresses of Catholics who, shamefully, were being allowed to live in their midst.

The Catholics are still living in the North.

This is part of the background which explains why Arlene Foster and her colleagues in the DUP advised her followers to ignore reality and vote to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum.

No matter that many ignored the advice. The North's is a begging bowl economy heavily reliant on British subsidies and on those from Brussels for agriculture.

Readers can make a fairly accurate guess for themselves as to what the attitude of farmers in the Republic would be if the main party in the Dáil deliberately adopted a policy which would end with cutting off the grants from Brussels in order to put obstacles in the path of North/South relationships.

And here we come to the importance of the Harry Diamond episode - the numbers game, as played at Stormont; when figures don't suit.

For several decades, the Census returns have been used to show a seemingly impervious unionist majority despite the apparent contradiction of an increased Catholic birth rate.

Light was shone on this practice when two Dublin demographers, Brendan Walsh and Cormac O'Gráda, analysed a recent Census return.

The official finding was that there were 38pc Catholics and 12pc who declared no religion appearing under "not stated".

However, when the two statisticians applied the test of increased fertility and knowledge of the Irish language to the "not stated", they decided that the Catholic 38pc could be over 40pc.

This, of course, was only an estimate but when the next official Census appeared (2011), the figure for Catholics was given as 40.8pc.

Curiously, however, the non-stated had gone up to 17pc and, we were told, these were largely Protestant males.

It is now some years since a former Taoiseach informed me that according to his information, the true Catholic population could well be around 46-48pc.

But, of course, neither he nor others involved wanted to risk frightening the horses by amplifying such estimates.

In the 2011 Census, the combined totals of the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist churches only stands at 35.8pc, with other groupings making up the balance.

So all in all, the Catholics are probably only something like 100,000 to 150,000 persons away from becoming the majority in the Six Counties.

All this is of significant contemporary relevance because in April we had the inter-censual period exercise. This is the Census which takes place five years after the Census which is always held a year after the decade, 2001, 2011, and so on.

These returns are due to be published this year and Dublin should scrutinise them a lot more carefully than the ground was prepared for the abortive All Ireland Forum.

The tectonic plates of the North/South relationship are shifting and in this period of unparalleled, Brexit-induced uncertainty.

Dublin (and London) should make it clear that the Census figures should be used to concentrate minds on the necessity of unionists and nationalists living peacefully in mutual cooperation.

Irish Independent

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