The results of the 2011 census show that the population gap between Catholics and Protestants has narrowed significantly. In fact, at current rates, the Catholics will be a majority after 2016. This has the potential to significantly destabilize Northern Irish politics. The fragile peace established by the Good Friday Agreement could fall apart. Republicans are excited with dreams of a United Ireland and Unionists are terrified with similar nightmares. However there is the lurking threat of a return to violence and a second wave of Troubles.
In 2001 Protestants were 53% of Northern Irelands’ population and Catholics were 44%. The 2011 census (released yesterday) shows that the ratio is now 48% to 45%. For the first time Protestants are not the majority and are close to parity with Catholics. If trends continue (due to higher Catholic birth rate) 2016 will be the breakeven point, ironically on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Belfast is now a Catholic majority city. It is important to note that when asked 40% said they considered themselves British, 25% considered themselves Irish and 21% considered themselves Northern Irish. So not every Catholic is a nationalist.
The Other category will be important. Traditionally it was comprised of people who refused to state their religion (this was especially the case during the Troubles) but the recent rise has also to do with the rise of non-belief in Northern Ireland. There is the added complication of immigration a relatively recent phenomenon. After all a Polish immigrant may be a Catholic but that doesn’t mean he will support a United Ireland.
Of course not every Catholic is a Nationalist and Unionist politicians are quick to point to polls that show only a minority of Catholics want a United Ireland. So there is a chance that nothing will come of this. On the other hand United Ireland was never a realistic option that had a genuine chance of happening; the odds are reversed if Catholics are the majority.
Sinn Fein has called for a referendum on unification. But even if Northern Catholics want to join the Republic, do we want them? Northern Ireland is poor province with high unemployment, decaying industries, a scarred and violent past. The Republic is not far from bankruptcy. Is it me or does this sound like a recipe for disaster? Few polls have been taken of Southern opinion and they always involved hypothetical scenarios. We may few Northerners like relatives, nice to visit but we’d hate to have to live with them. A United Ireland is a nice idea, like if we all spoke Irish, but I’m not sure how many people would support actual moves to implement it. For example if people are asked if they would support a United Ireland if their taxes went up then support sharply declines.
Then there are the Protestants. The lovely dreams of a United Ireland and “Tiocfaidh ar la” ignore the fact that many Protestants would rather kill and die than join a United Ireland. In all likelihood a second round of the Troubles would break out, except this one would be far worse. Belfast would burn and Dublin might as well. If it took the British army 30 years to fight the IRA to a standstill, how is the Irish army going to fair against a million, angry, united and determined Protestants?
Many Republicans subscribe to the naive view that Protestants will welcome a United Ireland with open arms and we’ll unite as Irishmen and live happily ever after. Not a hope in hell. Protestants will welcome a United Ireland the same way the Arab world welcome an American invasion. Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other for 400 years; you can’t forget that like it never happened. Despite the best wishes of Republicans, Unionists are determined to never join the South. It is as unacceptable to them as British Rule is to a Southern Republican. Concessions (like the retention of Stormount) could be offered but any United Ireland scenario is going to involve violence. A quick examination of the facts of a large section of the population who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the state (and unlike the Catholics they haven’t been beaten into submission), with a history of violence, versus a small non-violent country shows that the result is mass violence and the possibility of the Irish state being overwhelmed.
I personally would rather not be dragged into a sectarian/tribal/religious war with the accompanying kneecappings, car bombs, murders and hatred. Especially when none of this is balanced by any actual benefits. I mean, what’s so great about a United Ireland? It won’t make my life or anyone I know life any better. It won’t solve our unemployment or banking crisis. In fact it would be nothing but a distraction from our real problems. A United Ireland was a lovely dream back in Michael Collins’ time but times have changed and the risk of full scale civil war is more trouble than it’s worth.
Nothing but trouble would come from a United Ireland. So if a referendum in the North voted tomorrow to join the Republic, I’d say no way, Britain can keep that problem.