By Bridge Gadd (for Irish News)
I have heard on occasion some of my Catholic and nationalist friends, all of whom have given loyalty and commitment to Northern Ireland all their lives, talk about moving to the Republic.
The reason is always the same - to live in a country where they felt and were allowed to feel and celebrate being Irish and where they would be treated as equal citizens.
Some of these people, even as I write, could be searching the property pages in Westmeath or Mayo or wherever, determined at last to realise this dream because over the past few weeks they will certainly have their noses rubbed in the realisation that when the chips are down in the new Northern Ireland they, as Catholic nationalists, are less than equal.
I reckon it would be fairly accurate to speculate that most of the more than 90 per cent of Catholics who supported the Good Friday Agreement -- at the time optimistically -- thought that the acceptance of power sharing by the unionist population automatically pointed to a form of future democracy whose essence was consensus rather than government by that party which gained a simple headcount majority.
There is nothing uniquely Northern Ireland about this arrangement of the democratic process. The Belgian political arrangement is one model. Where any country’s voters choose by their votes to force a coalition of parties to govern, they are in effect opting for the same principle, ie they do not want, nor trust one party to have total governmental power over others.
Usually, whatever the nature of the coalition, it is normal for the party with the most voting support to take the lead in the governmental process.
And especially in coalitions it is a requirement for that party to pay special attention to the demands of their minority partners.
That is what a lot of us thought was to be the case here.
But the pact talks a few weeks ago blew a hole in that cosy assumption.
No secret was made of the view that everything was possible in alliances among unionists in order to stop Sinn Fein being in a position to nominate the first minister.
Nothing much wrong about that. Electoral pacts form the grist of a democracy. That wasn’t the jaw dropper.
What was, was that it became crystal dear that some in unionism found it inconceivable that at any future time they could be part of government where the lead party was the other side -- namely any political grouping stating its intention to work peacefully towards a united Ireland.
So what price parity of aspiration so painstakingly outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, with that dose of cold reality thrown at it? Republicans and nationalists are now face to face with the realisation that many of their fellow unionist citizens are prepared to tolerate power sharing only as long as they are still in charge.
But if the demographics change and a nationalist party qualifies to appoint a first minister then all deals are off. This is not, in a democracy, equality of citizenship. It is autocracy. It is actually a historical position that the world believed unionists had exorcised from their psyche.
What is so poignant about this current unionist position is that it denies a reality, ie the inevitable ascendency of the Catholic population here -- and I use the word Catholic and not nationalist quite deliberately.
If over the past 12 years (post Good Friday) unionists, especially the DUP, instead of begrudgingly, had set out magnanimously and earnestly to convince Catholics that it was no longer ‘croppy lie down’, that in a new Northern Ireland all were equal, we might be approaching a situation where union within the UK, or union within Ireland, was no longer subject to a sectarian headcount.
This golden opportunity has been lost.
Indeed the recent coming together with the purpose of denying government to anyone but themselves has publicly called the equality bluff. There may not be nationalist hordes packing up to move but, since unionism has made its real position clear, more Catholics will in the future vote to stay on a journey to a place and a state where they are recognised as equals.