Why are unionist politicians so tetchy these times? We had the famous crocodile remark (turbo-boost for Sinn Féin at election, thank you very much), we had Lord Kilclooney aka John Taylor refusing to apologise for calling Leo Varadkar ‘the Indian’, we had Peter Robinson telling Leo and Co to ‘wind their neck in.’ These repeated bursts of irritability could arise from the bad behaviour of republicans. Perhaps nationalists, republicans and the southern government are acting in a provocative fashion and the tetchiness of unionist politicians is totally justified. Perhaps.
But I think unionist politicians are flying off the handle, not because of any individual action by their political opponents, but because they’re experiencing a general sense of nervousness, even fear. It happens. When someone’s nerves are frayed, they’re not sure what’s coming next, they tend to blow their top at relatively innocent things. You could say anger and fear are kissing cousins. In fact, David Trimble recently accused Leo Varadkar of being bolshy about the border because he, Leo, was afraid: “ He [the Taoiseach] is snarling at London, trying to make a big issue about the border, because he is worried Sinn Fein might benefit if he does not.” Right, David. All those life-long Blue Shirts that are on the brink of conversion to Sinn Féin.
But to come back to unionist politicians: are they being snarly because they’re nervous? You might ask what in God’s name they have to be nervous about? In signing the Good Friday Agreement, nationalists and republicans made a massive concession: the future of Ireland could be decided by those in the six northern counties. The people of the south made another massive concession, abolishing Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and abandoning their claim to the north. With that kind of guarantee, why the jumpiness among unionist politicians?
Maybe because their fears run deeper than Brexit. Maybe their irritability over Brexit masks a deeper, more existential fear that the ground beneath their feet may open and swallow them up.
David McWilliams had an article a week ago in the Irish Times which identified possible reasons for this all-consuming unionist fear. In his article, McWilliams wrote about how many restaurants there are in towns in the north when compared to towns in the south. McWilliams compared two similar town, Kilkenny and Armagh. Tripadvisor had reviews for 176 restaurants in Kilkenny but just 43 in Armagh. Coleraine showed 58, Antrim a puny 49.
And there’s more. The south’s economy, according to McWilliams, is four times bigger than that of the North, even though it has a work-force that’s only two-and-a-half times bigger. The south’s industrial output is ten times that of the north. The south exports are seventeen times bigger than the north’s. While average income in the south is just over £35,000, in the north it’s just over £20,000. And Dublin is now three times the size of Belfast. It’s all a massive reversal of how things were a hundred years ago, when partition was imposed.
Those are hard economic facts – facts you won’t hear unionist politicians talking much about. That’s because even thinking about such things makes the head of most unionist politicians throb.
But the clincher comes when we move from economics to demographics. McWilliams has two little multi-coloured pie-charts in the middle of his article, which show the percentage of Catholics and Protestants in the north by age. What percentage of over 90s in the north is Catholic? Just 28%. And Protestants? Over 70%. In other words, far more old people are Protestant.
And then, in his second little pie-chart, McWilliams looks at children in the north aged 0-5. Catholics constitute 49% of that group, with Protestants coming in on 37%.
You don’t have to be a demographer to work out how changed the voting population here will be in another twenty years. If present voting patterns are maintained, nationalists/republicans will out-number unionists by a margin of 12%. What to do?
There’s only one thing unionists can do: try to persuade nationalists and republicans that they’d be better off staying in the union. Will they manage that trick? I’d say, despite all the ‘Northern Irish’ talk, it’s doubtful.
There are those who’d dismiss all this as a sectarian head-count. But consider for a moment the reason the demographers created the border they did one hundred years ago. Correct, Virginia – on a painstaking sectarian headcount. It’s a terrible thing to end up hoisted by your own petard.