BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CN) — A man leans out of a window high up on the hulking parliament building of Northern Ireland and shouts to a gaggle of journalists down below. “Get me a united Ireland or I jump!” It was a joke, but one full of meaning.
That man was Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary group that killed about 1,771 people in its ruthless quest to end British rule in Northern Ireland, a state carved out of Ireland in the 1920s as a home for Protestants.
The context for the joke was historic: Adams and other politicians representing Roman Catholics had just resumed sitting in Northern Ireland’s parliament on equal footing with Protestants, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that ended decades of bloodshed.
The message was clear: Despite having obtained political equality with Protestants in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin was still beholden to the idea of driving the British out of Ireland.
Twenty-one years later, the campaign to unify Ireland is being revived by the combustible Brexit referendum, and it’s a cause bolstered by a slow transformation taking place in Northern Ireland as the Protestant-majority country changes into a place where Catholics appear set to become the majority. It’s possible that Catholics will outnumber Protestants in the next census in 2021. This new arithmetic played out in the last parliament elections in 2017: For the first time, Protestant political parties lost their majority.
In Belfast, many Catholics exude a sense of confidence that one day in the not-so-distant future they will be living in the Republic of Ireland rather than in the United Kingdom.
“The demographics are changing the country,” said Joseph Flynn, the 61-year-old owner of a hardware store in the Catholic stronghold of Falls Road in West Belfast.
“It will happen,” he said about unification. “It’s only a matter of time. This here [Brexit] will only speed it up. There’s nothing for Ireland in this whole Brexit.”
Northern Ireland is also a country where Sinn Féin — once a small party viewed as the repugnant public face of IRA gunmen and bombers — has grown into the dominant political force among Catholics and those who are pro-Irish.
In parallel fashion, Sinn Féin’s main political rival is an equally radical Protestant party whose goal historically has been to limit the power of Catholics in government in Northern Ireland: This is the Democratic Unionist Party. Like Sinn Féin, the DUP was formerly a small party and viewed as a menace to peace.
The two parties now are fighting over this big question facing Ireland: Should Northern Ireland exist at all? Should it become part of an Irish federal or republican state? Should it remain part of the United Kingdom?
After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the contentious question of Irish unity sprang back with energy into the political discourse.
Why? Because a majority of people of Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU: 56 percent were in favor of staying. Polls show support for Irish unity growing since Brexit.
The day after the Brexit vote, Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander and Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland’s parliament, re-awoke the sleeping issue of holding a unification referendum, known as a “border poll” because it would ask people if they want to remove the U.K.-Irish border.
“I think that our case for a border poll has also been strengthened by the outcome of this vote,” he told journalists. He said that Brexit undermined the Good Friday Agreement.
“If you want to look at it more cynically, Brexit may have opened up a whole range of political opportunities, in particular for Sinn Féin,” said Colin Coulter, a scholar from Northern Ireland and sociologist at Maynooth University near Dublin, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.
The Good Friday Agreement, the landmark accord that ended the Troubles, and the Irish constitution spell out how the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland can hold a referendum to determine whether they want the island to be united. For this to happen, majorities in both countries would need to vote in favor of unification.
Discussion of a united Ireland is raising political tensions.
In interviews, Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has said she and her family probably would move to Great Britain if Northern Ireland were severed from the U.K.
“If it were to happen, I’m not sure that I would be able to continue to live here, I would feel so strongly about it. I would probably have to move,” she told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper.
On the streets of Belfast, many Protestants express indignation when asked how they feel about Irish unification. Some even say a united Ireland could reignite sectarian violence.
One of those is Anthony Cooper, a 57-year-old Protestant electrician from a South Belfast neighborhood. “If there’s a united Ireland, it (violence) will start up. The Protestants won’t let it happen. Protestants wouldn’t allow a united Ireland.”
Michael Grubb, a 59-year-old retired computer consultant and Protestant who supports the Democratic Unionist Party, shook his head and said it would be a disaster if Northern Ireland fell under rule from Dublin and its parliament, known as the Dáil.
“This place looks like heaven on earth compared to the Dáil,” Grubb said, gesturing toward Northern Ireland’s parliament building, known as Stormont. He was strolling home through the well-manicured park surrounding Stormont.
“I know this is bad,” he said, nodding at Stormont. “But that is worse. Most Northern Irish know it (Ireland) is a banana republic. It’s completely corrupt.”
Actually, Ireland scores well on corruption indices and is one of Europe’s most successful economies. It is Northern Ireland, once the industrial engine of Ireland, which has become an economic laggard.
Regardless, there are bread-and-butter issues that worry people in Northern Ireland about the prospect of unification, regardless of whether they are Protestant or Catholic. Chief among their concerns is the higher cost of living in Ireland and Ireland’s healthcare system. Joining Ireland also would mean joining its privatized healthcare program with its expensive health insurance. People in Northern Ireland are treated under the U.K.’s generous government-run National Health Service.
“If I have a cold, I ring up the doctor, it costs nothing. In Ireland, it would cost me €50,” said Stephen McAlister, a 60-year-old district secretary in the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal order long identified with Northern Ireland’s most anti-Catholic sentiments.
He stood outside an Orange Order hall in the Protestant neighborhood of Shankill Road, waiting for a meeting to start. He helps organize yearly parades the Orange Order puts on, which often spark sectarian violence.
McAlister said he was shot in the head by the IRA when he served as a police officer during the Troubles and was left partially blind.
He said the partitioning of Ireland into two states was the fault of Irish Catholics. “They left us, we didn’t leave them” he said, referring to the Irish War of Independence that led to the creation of Ireland in 1922. “They left us with an insurrection.”
Grubb said Protestants won’t give up Northern Ireland without a fight.
“We can’t give up our independence. We’ve spent hundreds of years fighting for it,” he said. He said many in his family were killed in First World War and that Northern Irish like him feel that Britain carved out Northern Ireland as a protectorate for Protestants and compensation for the country’s contribution to the war effort.
“We don’t forget. We have long memories in this country,” he said.
Jake Mercury, a Protestant who does volunteer work in the Shankill neighborhood, scoffed at the idea of a united Ireland.
“There’s the romanticism of a united Ireland,” he said with disdain. But for him, Sinn Féin is a radical left-wing party bent on removing every British symbol in Ireland.
“They want a socialist republic,” he said. “Socialism works only when you spend other people’s money. Margaret Thatcher said that. It’s true.”
He said Northern Ireland must remain a home for Protestants.
“We’re the hardworking Protestant ethic. We’re the ones who built the Titanic, right here from the Shankill,” he said with emotion.
“We cultivated Northern Ireland. The majority of it was Ulster Scots, Presbyterians.”
But the tide of events may not be on the side of Protestants.
David McWilliams, a well-known economist at Dublin’s Trinity College, wrote in the Financial Times last November that a referendum on Irish unity is on the horizon and that it would make the “tortuous” debate over Brexit look like “schoolyard stuff compared with what lies ahead.”
“As a result of Brexit, politicians in the Republic are talking about unity in a way I have not heard before,” he wrote. “It is still remote but not improbably so. It may take decades, it will not be straightforward and the risk of a return to violence is ever-present, but make no mistake something is in train.”
He noted that the last census, in 2011, showed Northern Ireland’s elderly population was predominantly Protestant but that Catholics made up a higher percentage of young people. The Protestant population is dwindling in part because so many young people from Protestant families go to Britain for university and don’t return.
“Protestant Northern Ireland is old, shrinking and increasingly nervous; Catholics in the six counties are young, expanding and confident,” he wrote.
Still, many in Ireland will have reservations about adding the six counties of Northern Ireland and its Protestants, who are also known as loyalists because of their loyalty to the British crown.
“While the South’s economic resurgence may make the prospect of a united Ireland financially more do-able, that very wealth means that the Irish middle class has much more to lose, given the political risks involved,” he wrote. “A significant proportion of people in the Republic might not want unification because of the financial cost or the medium-term threat of civil war if loyalism decides to fight.”
Coulter, the Maynooth University sociologist, also sees a unity referendum eventually being held.
“It will certainly take place,” he said. “If it happens in two years time, it won’t win; but if it takes place in 10 years, it might win.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)