When I was very young, in the 1950’s and 60’s, I and my friends were warned about the risks of having anything to do with that State south of the border. We were told that the Irish Free State was a Priest ridden backwater, where Protestants were unwelcome, where the Government answered to the Catholic Bishops and the country was effectively ruled from Maynooth. It was a place that offered nothing to Northern Ireland’s Protestants.
We listened at certain times of the year to songs about guarding Derry’s walls, Dolly’s Brae and what happened at the Boyne in 1690.
The Orange Order was strong in those days, certainly in Finaghy where I grew up they had a high level of membership and my Dad played his part and enjoyed both Orange and Black. Strangely, looking back, he didn’t so far as I recall, encourage his four sons to join the orders, but he did, by his own attitude, instil a healthy respect in me for the activities and history of the Loyal Orders.
Life seemed simpler, but at that age we didn’t know the extent of deprivation, unemployment and segregation across Northern Ireland. We wouldn’t have known what gerrymandering was or discrimination in employment.
As I moved into my mid teens, travelling from Finaghy to Belfast Royal Academy on the Cliftonville Road by two buses each way (or in the good weather on the bike) became more difficult, as tensions were becoming apparent, times were changing and the demand for change was becoming more strident. The IRA campaign of the early fifties had passed us by, but being a bit older it was plain to see that things were not as we had thought.
I began to read some Irish history, it wasn’t taught in our school. Old beliefs had to be challenged, the Civil Rights movement evolved, we moved into the era of the Troubles, Internment, Bloody Sunday, John Hume, Rev Ian Paisley, Bloody Friday and the unending disgusting activities of paramilitaries, Republican and Loyalist. My wife was injured in the Callender St bomb, other friends were killed at La Mon. I attended funerals of Troubles victims and played the organ at two RUC officers funerals.
Skipping forward, the question of reunification has often come up, but by and large it has been assumed that a Border poll wouldn’t change anything, that a majority still favours the Union. The agreement that only a vote by referendum can change the status of Northern Ireland is a useful guarantee to Unionists.
Despite all of our political problems and three wasted years of stalemate at Stormont from 2017-20 (and even the scandals of RHI, SIF and others in the years before that), the constitutional question was not asked in any kind of serious way until Brexit came along.
Brexit and its consequences, including the Protocol, have changed the narrative. Constitutional and economic issues have become intertwined and once again, as so often before, the DUP are playing up the threat to what is now apparently to be called “our precious union”. The obvious advantages to Northern Ireland contained in Theresa May’s proposed deal, which would have largely avoided any customs frontiers in any direction and in some ways would have given Northern Ireland a “best of both worlds” outcome, cut no ice with them. They chose instead to trust Boris Johnson, and ended up with the Northern Ireland Protocol and an inevitable outcome that, at least in some sectors, Northern Ireland’s economic interests would best be aligned not with Great Britain but with the rest of Ireland.
It did not matter to the DUP or many other Unionists that every business organisation in Northern Ireland, including the Ulster Farmers’ Union, who had so much to lose in the event of a loss of access to their EU markets, disagreed with them. The DUP continued with its “not an inch” stance, and instead lost many miles of ground.
Why would I give a historical preamble before coming to the point, namely Brexit and its ramifications? My point is that through all of my life I never saw the union coming under threat. Through all the troubles, atrocities, pressure for border polls and demands from Nationalist politicians, the public here recognised that we were better off with the status quo. However, the creation of such uncertainty around that status quo has led to Unionist confidence being eroded and many questions now being asked openly. Would we in fact be economically better off rejoining the world’s largest trading zone? Is our quickest route to achieving that via a United Ireland? Recent tests of public opinion do not yet indicate any kind of decisive shift in attitude, but the questions are now out there and what we might call “soft” unionists are prepared to openly consider possibilities, which a few years ago would have been unthinkable.
This year sees one hundred years since the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland. Across the six counties there will be many different opinions on how, if at all, this centenary should be marked. Some unionists will want acts of celebration while nationalists will suggest there is nothing to celebrate in what some think is a failed state. If hardline unionists insist on forcing celebrations in areas of mixed opinion, they risk further alienating moderate nationalists and even some moderate unionists.
This could be the decade when personal economics takes priority over personal politics. The Irish Republic has transformed itself in recent years and in social terms has changed dramatically, making itself more attractive to liberal thinking people, whether Nationalist or Unionist by instinct. There is a substantial bloc of population who avoid those labels as well, and who are in fact now vital to building any majority in favour of the constitutional status quo or constitutional change. The determination of Unionist politicians to conflate two separate issues and frankly use scare tactics no longer has the numbers to suffice on its own. After all these years, a United Ireland is more possible than it has ever been and Unionism has perhaps played the major part in bringing that about.
The course is not yet set. However, my Unionist friends need to think hard about the course upon which they have embarked, as there is a danger that they are simply doing their opponents’ work for them.