To survive, trade unionism must now include Catholics in Northern Ireland | Malachi O’Doherty


VSEnsus results do not predict change; they just help describe what has happened so far. The transformation of Northern Ireland to the point where Roman Catholics now outnumber Protestants has already happened, and it’s not where I grew up anymore.

This represents the collapse of the political idea that prevailed after the partition and to which we still cling desperately; that the survival of the union depends on unionism being Protestant. Now there can no longer be a majority to stay in the UK that does not include Catholics. Any union defense strategy must appeal across sectarian lines.

This ‘Protestant Ulster’ claim was epitomized by the region’s most popular politician, the thundering clergyman, the Reverend Ian Paisley, who founded the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and dominated all votes in the European Parliament before making his party the biggest. in Northern Ireland and become Prime Minister.

Paisley rejected the idea of ​​a united Ireland because he feared that “Ulster”, as he called it, would be absorbed into a Catholic state. Such had been the fear expressed by those who, more than a century ago, had opposed autonomy, asserting that it would amount to “rule by Rome”.

The partition was designed to provide territory that could be ruled by a Protestant majority. The original design is now obsolete – but that still doesn’t mean the partition has to fail.

In the period of civil rights agitation in the late 1960s, people around Paisley absurdly imagined that the Catholic Church was manipulating protest and an IRA uprising. Until the crisis created by the civil rights campaign, the Orange Order had an effective veto over the appointment of ministers to Stormont’s government, all of whom had to be members of the Order.

And the monarchy was cherished as a defender of civil liberties against the encroachment of Catholicism and Gaelic culture through its preservation of the Protestant faith. Yet when King Charles recently took an oath to continue in this tradition, there was no exultant song from trade unionists, no declaration from anyone that it honored their deepest beliefs and underscored unity.

Unionists don’t talk like Paisley anymore. The vision of a Northern Ireland that could retain an eminently Protestant character is obsolete. For my book, Can Ireland Be One?, I interviewed the current Grand Secretary of the Orange Grand Lodge of Ireland and he made it clear that he had already seen change and the need to work with it. He said, “We must coexist to preserve the union.”

He had acknowledged before the census result that Northern Ireland could only remain in the UK with the consent of a large number of people who are members of the Catholic community and probably identify as Irish but who , as several polls have shown, already believe they are better off in the UK. This, however, would be a vulnerable union based on pragmatism rather than passion or principle; not ideal from Orange’s point of view but the best that is currently offered.

The last thing that will preserve the union is a political culture that would alienate Catholics and Irish-identifying people who have the numbers to vote for Northern Ireland in a united Ireland. The only way to preserve the union is to make these people feel at home. There is some hope.

As a student and young man, I believed that I lived in an orange state where I would always be disadvantaged. The long-awaited escape from the shadow of Protestant unionism was a united Ireland, imagined in a future where Ireland would be more prosperous – as it is now – and less denominational in its own character – as it is now – with the erosion of the influence of the Catholic Church. The modern Ireland in which I would feel more at home arrived at the same time as a Northern Ireland in which I no longer risk being discriminated against.

A new leader like Ian Paisley emerging to proclaim Ulster’s inherent Protestant character would simply be mocked now. Paisley himself was an anachronism in his own life with nowhere to go but to lead his party in partnership with the largest party in the Catholic community, Sinn Féin. However, even with these results, trade unionism has a game to play, if it knew it. It must demonstrate that Northern Ireland works and has a secular, liberal and inclusive culture in which everyone enjoys full and fully respected citizenship.

So far, it has not done well at this, with its core evangelical Protestant culture attempting to block legislative reform to legalize abortion and same-sex marriage. Even when campaigning against the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson addressed protest rallies backed by loyalist groups, rallies in which a Catholic may not feel safe.

A unionism that was once the dominant political culture now behaves like an eccentric minority, winning no converts and alienating itself instead of alienating others.

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