Ulster Said Yes, will the rest?

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There’s no rural-urban split, no conservative Ireland versus liberal Ireland, said Una Mullally and Fintan O’Toole, just modern, democratic Ireland.

Ireland’s equal marriage referendum rolled in on an irresistible wave of optimism, breaking and unleashing euphoria around the island and across the diaspora.

It was infectious and invigorating to witness the event. It upended the mental furniture, watching constitutional change of such magnitude made law by force of popular vote. The unanimity, and humility of the plebiscite ramified the consciousness. One from fourty-three constituencies voted NO.

It was like a blast of a trumpet, executed by the many and not the few – a sounding to the world that Ireland is not only open for business (as the best little country to do enterprise), but is a country open to everybody; irrespective of colour, creed, confession or sexuality.

Ireland is running forward, confident in its own skin, free of Celtic Tiger pretensions. Ireland has set out its stall: a modern, liberal and cosmopolitan bridgehead nation reaching and leading the way into the 21st Century.

As emotive as the occasion was, I was envious. Contrast the unanimity and humility of the south with the north: remarkable. Looking down from this sterile, sectarian pene-exclave – that “empty space” in the mind of the modern and worldly Irish – I felt and feel ashamed and embarrassed.

Amnesty has called Northern Ireland the “last bastion of discrimination.”  A “discriminatory backwater” ruled by a minority evangelical class. Even loyalist-courting Mike Nesbitt knows the DUP have to reconsider their policy of total veto.

Born a unionist, I am confident in my unionism, in spite of political unionism. My heritage is not their record of misgovernment and discrimination. I can point to a shared history of progress and tolerance to support our archipelagic super-group.

Yes I bear a “burden” of kind by my planter inheritance, but good and accommodative government can remedy sores.

No more. When Ireland’s pro-Union politicians stand so starkly against progressive London government, there is no excuse.

And this is what Mullally and O’Toole have politely, but disastrously unhelpfully, skirted past. There is a gaping divide in Ireland and on these islands.

A two front split and ever-widening gulf: between ever-modernising modern Ireland and backward Northern Ireland; between modern Britain and backward “more British than Finchley” 6-county Ireland.

There is a thick religious veneer over central and local government. Northern Ireland remains religious and conservative in both the rural and urban spheres. There’s a weird hyper-trendy evangelical strain in youth culture that straddles the latest trends with Old Testament biblicalism.

How would Northern Ireland cross the plebiscitary line if we got a vote? Hard to say; but if there was a Yes, it wouldn’t score anywhere near the same margin of comfort our southern brothers and sisters enjoyed.

But the great historical irony and takeaway from the May 23 2015 vote was that those Ulster counties who voted – Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal – voted YES.

It is a thumping strike against the outrageously inept slogan ‘Ulster Says No‘, something that will loudly standout in Northern Ireland’s rather inglorious history.

Northern Ireland is walking a funny line at the moment, bubbling up with over-statement and over-reaction, as they the religious once again cry wolf that Christians are being persecuted; when all in fact that is being asked is that a minority be able to enjoy the same rights and privileges they themselves enjoy.

Of course, all the religious indignity and lost arguments of the past are forgotten, and the arguments and hysterics are repeated and bleated out.

I’m for the liberalising and secular tide of history and the upward arch. Northern Ireland needs to wake up and suffer a “reality check“and realise the reputational injury it’s causing itself.

Northern Ireland is on the wrong side of history, but as Ben Lowry said, and I’ve said many times before, equal-marriage will come to Northern Ireland, one way or another.

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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. you don’t bear any burden for being born to unionist parents. it also has no meaningful correlation to *literally* having a “planter” heritage, any more than anyone who is nationalist or born south of the border has anything to do with such a heritage, regardless of their familial imposed religion or politics. this is a black and white view of the history of the people on this island. we’re never going to get over the issues of identity here if we can’t transcend the notion that someone’s born a unionist, or that that they were born into a protestant or unionist family means there’s a direct line of heritage going back centuries to the plantation. it’s counter intuitive.

  2. Revolutions are based on issues like poverty and injustice such as the French or Russian revolutions. They are not based on sex. The outworking of the “60s” sexual revolution, which Ireland seemed to miss, is being seen in Saville et.al. We’re fifty years late and we think we’re world leaders. Pantibliss is the new Larkin? Really! The only reason the world takes notice is because of our putative Catholicism and there lies the real story, the real shock and awe.

  3. The practical challenges facing Northern Ireland on Equal Marriage are much less than those facing the republic. Ours required a change in our constitution, hence the referendum. Northern Ireland just requires a majority in the Assembly.

    The next Dail will likely bring about another referendum on abortion. A consensus has been building on allowing abortion in the events of fatal fetal abnormality, rape and incest, accelerated by the Savita Halappanavar case in 2012. This will have to be brought about by legislative change, based on the probable removal of the constitutional ban on abortion.

    This is going to be a real ding-dong battle between the forces of liberalism and conservatism in the republic. There’ll be skin and hair flying!

  4. Eddie Finnegan on

    Phew! By a whisker! Sighs of relief across Free West-Ulster! Special vote of thanks and All-Ireland Rainbow Medals to all of those Gallant 34 voters in Donegal South-West who saved us from that unthinkable West-of-the-Shannon Shame by a magnificent 50.1%YES to 49.9%NO, snatching Glorious Victory from the baleful jaws of Ignominious Defeat. Not forgetting, of course, the Breffni Boys and those 731 Rainbow Warriors of Cavan-Monaghan who squeaked home with a barely 1.3% margin of 50.6%YES to 49.4%NO. So, no reason why our south-eastern ‘pene-enclave’ our ‘last bastion of discrimination and discriminalisation’ shouldn’t rise to the dizzying heights of Donegal and Cavan-Monaghan, if given the chance. They really haven’t set the bar too high for even their most Leviticus-bound neighbours to leap. Bring it on!

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