I was asked to take part – at short notice – in a BBC Radio Five Live discussion of the Haass talks yesterday. The prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully, and I found the prospect of being live on Radio Five Live forced me to think hard about what’s been happening and what’s at stake.
The first and most important thing is that these talks are not merely about how we can live together in a more productive and civilized way. Behind that aspiration there lies a unionist fear that the ground is slipping from under them. Two things contribute to this fear: power-sharing at Stormont and the inexorable rise of the Catholic population. Unionists, it’s safe to say, do not like sharing power with nationalists and republicans. The second and even deeper sense of fear comes from the steady rise in numbers of the Catholic population. At the present rate, 2021 will see Catholics holding a 3% lead in population terms. Which is why the ‘Northern Irish’ box on the census has been hailed so loudly, as a sign that Catholics now want to be part of the UK. In their gut, however, most Unionists know this isn’t so. They’re worried.
So they have a choice. They can embrace the change at Stormont, develop it more locally through acknowledging the Irish identity of just abut half the population in terms of flags and marches, or they can struggle to keep the lid on things and call on reinforced not-an-inch attitudes.
The first option – embracing change – offers real hope for a productive transformation of our society. The second invites increasing friction and ultimate disaster. As the English commentator Simon Jenkins said in yesterday’s Guardian: “Flags and parades [are] emblems of a militarist past, blatantly intended to induce fear in an enemy. Why should anyone need such antics in 21st century Europe? Any sensible person would simply ban them, totally and without partiality”.
The fact is that we are a society in which there are two conflicting identities, British and Irish. A minute’s dispassionate thought will tell you that expression of British identity is available at every turn in this society. The Union flag is the only flag that flies on public buildings; of the 3,000 + marches annually the Parades Commission calculates 95% are unionist/loyalist; when Haass proposed an inventory of memorabilia in all councils it was quickly vetoed by unionists.
It’s a conclusion I’m reluctant to come to, because it bodes ill – very ill -for the future: unionism has opted for keeping or attempting to keep a lid on things in this society, has decided to blink away the importance of giving equal outlet for the Irish identity of roughly half the citizens of this state. That means not only that the Haas talks will be a failure, but that ammunition will be handeded to those who say that this state is a failed entity. The longer unionism struggles to screw down the lid, the more disastrous things will be when it finally blows. If I were a unionist, I would be actively seeking ways in which I could accommodate the different identity of my fellow-citizens. To do anything else would make me a first cousin of King Canute.