There is a term once used to describe this state which has fallen into disuse. When I was a child, you’d hear it regularly on Radio Eireann , and the local nationalist newspaper wouldn’t have dreamt of using ‘the north of Ireland’, let alone ‘Northern Ireland’. That term was’ the Six Counties’ (usually capitalized). Maybe it’s been largely abandoned because voting patterns suggest that already, reference to the Three Counties would make more sense.
Which brings us to demographics. Ian Paisley vowed that Ulster (sic) would not be bombed into a united Ireland and it wouldn’t be out-bred into one either. Whatever about the first, there can be few people who don’t know that there’ll be a Catholic majority here in the early 2020s and that that Catholic majority then may well call for a referendum on Irish national unity.
Which is when three factors might apply a brake to nationalist aspirations towards unity.
The first is the ‘Northern Irish’ identity. There are some, like the Belfast Telegraph, who think that people describing themselves as ‘Northern Irish’ rather than ‘Irish’ on a census form means there is a comfort among Catholics with the way things are, they don’t mind British sovereignty and thus would vote against Irish unity in a referendum.
The second thing which might bind Catholics to the state and avoid a victory for the forces of Irish unification is that unionists could reach out to Catholics, could show that they’re willing to recognize them as fellow-Ulstermen and women, could engage in genuine power-sharing and respect for difference. This is the ‘Be nice to nationalists’ strategy
The only problem with both these potential brakes is that they are based on wishful thinking. It’s true that nationalists in this state see themselves as different from the rest of Ireland; but that could as easily be because they’ve suffered together over the decades, not because they have replaced self-identification as Northern Irish . Take a look around you: there is a higher sense of the value of Irish culture and things Irish in the north than, arguably, any other part of Ireland. As Father Denis Faul once said, a little bit of persecution works wonders for the faith. So while unionism might wish that ‘Northern Irish’ means a willingness to accept the status quo, it might also mean the opposite: not that we’re less Irish than the rest of Ireland, but that we’re more.
As to the second one – where unionism love-bombs nationalists into voting for union with Britain – I don’t think we need to spend too long fretting over that one. Sammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell, Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster: do they strike you as people who’ll bend their backs to win the hearts and minds of nationalists?
And while it’s been true in the past that Catholics in the north were keenly aware of the benefits of the NHS and other UK financial advantages, Brexit has successfully stripped away any such thinking. The whole Brexit debate over the British border in Ireland revolves around the fact that, self-evidently, people would be better off in a united Ireland than they would be in an Ireland with the top bit a north-east fortress. In fact, the need for economic unity is so obvious, perhaps unionism should be working hard to try to shore up the unionist vote they have, rather than set off in search of Catholics. Although the more you shore up unionism, the stronger nationalism becomes in response. As the opening lines of ‘Something Inside So Strong’ put it, “The higher you build your barriers/ The taller I become.”
There is a third possibility which unionism seems to have in mind: gerrymander. The redrawn boundaries of electoral areas could cancel out the rise in the Catholic population. I say could, because I don’t see nationalists and republicans today accepting anything with even the whiff of gerrymander. It might have been possible with our fathers and grandfathers, but it just won’t work with us.