There used to be a programme on BBC Radio called ‘Ask the Eperts”. I can’t remember what the experts were experts of, but people would write in and have their questions answered. These days there are all sorts of experts, more than willing to answer the question de nos jours: when might we expect a united Ireland?
Even to frame it that way – when rather than if – suggests there are powerful forces moving us in that direction. Prominent among such forces are Brexit and demographic change.
Brexit you might say is a game-changer, except that this is no game. When and if it is implemented, there will be economic pain, ranging from severe to appalling, depending on the terms under which the UK leaves the EU. This has raised the question of a united Ireland, since the wishes of the UK – or to be more exact the wishes of England and Wales – are different from the wishes of people in the north of Ireland. Most of them want to and will leave the EU, most of us want to but won’t be allowed to stay in the EU. The obvious democratic solution is a united Ireland.
The other force moving us towards a united Ireland is demographics. The number of Catholics or people from a Catholic background is increasing while the number of Protestants and those from a Protestant background is decreasing. There are in turn two questions relating to that force: will all Catholics vote for a united Ireland, and if yes, when will they do so?
The answer to this will depend on the severity of Brexit in the north and the relative prosperity of the south. It’ll also depend on how liberal and outward looking the south is and how conservative and inward-looking the north is.
The second of these is easy: can you see the DUP and its supporters becoming gay-friendly or Irish-culture friendly? I’d prefer to bet on a dancing bear leading the Riverdance chorus line. Likewise, I can’t see Leo and Co becoming swing-on-Sunday chainers or gay-bashers.
As to demographics, in today’s Irish Times Pete Shirlow says it’ll take fifteen years before a voting majority for a united Ireland will be there. In the same article, Brian Feeney says it’ll be much sooner. Mind you, rumour hath it that Brian Feeney had to buy somebody a bottle of champagne, because back in the day he’d bet the 2001 census figures would show Catholics as neck-and-neck with Protestants. They weren’t . As to the 2011 census, there’s been a remarkable amount of non-commentary on that. So while Brian believes it’ll be a nationalist voting majority in the early 2020s, do remember his track record.
But with the paasage of every day, DUP sanguinity on these matters is vanishing like goodwill in the face of a kick-the-pope band. There have always been those who’ve believed in a united Ireland, and insisted that their day would come. The difference now is that the middle class, the professional class, the academics are also beginning to see Irish unity as a real possibility. Where once acceptance of the status quo was the mark of sanity and respectability, now consideration of a united Ireland is becoming the new normal.
The thing si, Arlene, we have been careful what we wished for, and our wishes keep looking more like they could come true. When? And sooner rather than later, as your Tory chums go on crashing around their china-shop and your party keeps giving two fingers to its electoral base.