By Jude Collins (for Daily Ireland)
Nationalists did an odd thing in 1998: they turned their back on a core element of nationalist belief. Until that point, nationalists had argued that Ireland’s affairs and the shape of Irish political life should be a matter for the people of Ireland to decide.
The Good Friday Agreement deleted this element. With the assent of the majority of the nationalist people, control of the shape of Irish political life was placed in the hands, not of all the people of Ireland, but one fifth - of Northern unionists.
For some nationalists, this was a step too far and they voted against the Good Friday Agreement. For the overwhelming majority of nationalists, it was a necessary compromise which gave assurance to unionists that they would not be coerced into a united Ireland.
An objective viewer of the situation might have expected unionists and their representatives to take to the streets to dance their delight at this assurance, but an objective viewer would have been wrong. Instead, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, most unionist politicians have acted as if the principle of consent hasn’t happened. ‘With nationalists it’s take, take, take, and no give,’ they complain.
Whether unionists ignore it or cheer it to the heavens, the principle of consent is there, and nationalists have to confront that fact and ask themselves ‘Where from here?’
One answer - popular until the last census figures - was ‘We wait until we outbreed them, which won’t be long.’ That looks a less promising response in the past couple of years. Evidence? How about the number of Catholic schools that are merging or closing in the North. The inescapable fact is that Catholic families are smaller than they were, the rate of increase in the Catholic population has slowed, and the hope that natural population growth would lead to a nationalist majority seems a lot less robust than it once did.
Another answer - one advanced by Gerry Adams and other Sinn Féin leaders - is that nationalists must persuade the unionist population of the advantages of a united Ireland. They must argue the case for unionists joining nationalists as part of a self-respecting, self-governing country, rather than continuing to cling to the coat-tails of a disdainful Britain. Eventually the logic of this argument will prevail.
A convincing answer? Well, if you go by past experience, no. The prospects of a mass unionist conversion are low. On the other hand, a united Ireland majority doesn’t require mass or even majority unionist assent, despite what Mark Durkan claims. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a shift of something under ten per cent into the nationalist camp would create the required united-Ireland majority. But even this seems a long shot to the average hard-headed nationalist.
There is a third answer, which is less often offered. One way of getting a majority in the north to vote for a united Ireland is to attract a majority to it. Another way would be if sufficient numbers of unionists became, not so much attracted to a united Ireland, as disillusioned with the notion of a continuing state of Northern Ireland.
The possibility of this judgment taking root within the unionist population is real. Think back to the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The people who were the driving force behind the movement - John Hume, Eamonn McCann, Bernadette Devlin - were not nationalists seeking to break the link with Britain. They were products of the new educated Catholic class, people who refused to accept the role of second-class citizens and demanded full rights in the state where they lived.
Unionism reacted to their demands with anger verging on apoplexy. Why? Because the demand for equality touched a nerve in the central nervous system of unionist thinking. Northern Ireland was set up for the benefit of the unionist population - a Protestant state for a Protestant people. If the nationalists who found themselves stranded within that state were ever to emerge as fully equal, a major reason for the state’s existence would have vanished. That’s why the Protestant population quickly peeled away from the civil rights movement and were filled with suspicion and dread by its growth.
Spool forward 40 years and consider the situation today. Unionist politicians like Gregory Campbell may lament the inequality visited on the unionist population of Derry or the Shankill, but the facts and figures tell a different story. Nationalists throughout the North are still suffering disproportionate disadvantage in health, jobs, all the major areas.
To suggest that nothing has changed would be wrong. There have been improvements in the lot of nationalists here. They’ve still some distance to go before they reach full equality as citizens, but they’re clearly on their way. The figures are improving. Within the next five years, with energetic political representation, nationalists will make major strides towards real equality in this state.
And then? Then a major reason for the existence of the state will have been removed. What’s the point in carving out a corner of the island and maintaining it in the face of economic, cultural and geographical logic, not to mention international pressure, if the one thing it at one time ensured you - advantage over a Catholic underclass - is gone? It makes as much sense as having an Orange parade with no one to triumph over and bait.
That’s not to suggest that opposition to equality down the decades wasn’t well-laced with bigotry as well, but that bigotry was born of a fear that to grant full equality would be to sound the death-knell of this sad little state.
That, in the final analysis, is why Ian Paisley is scared stiff of sharing governmental power with a bunch of fenians who demand justice and equality for the people they represent. If he does, the consequences for unionism could be fatal.