One dispiriting aspect of our times is the somewhat schizophrenic desire of a goodly number of people to be simultaneously accorded the right to anonymously abuse others in social media and in comment boxes in on-line publications while objecting vigorously to being subjected to, or even being made aware of, statements by others which they deem to be offensive.
This schizoid snowflake approach to freedom of expression is all-pervasive.
Take, for instance, the case of Arlene Foster. If she were asked whether she hoped that the North would remain part of the UK for her political lifetime or, indeed, for her natural lifetime, she would naturally answer “Yes”. If she didn’t, she would lose her job.
But when the converse proposition was recently put to Simon Coveney at an Oireachtas Committee, and when he admitted that he hoped for a united Ireland in his political or natural lifetime, Arlene accused him of using “aggressive” language.
It did not matter to Arlene that he had made that statement while stressing his personal view that a united Ireland poll would have to be passed by a big majority in the North if there was to be genuine unity and reconciliation on this island. She preferred to regard his words as “aggressive”.
Of course, taking offence at honest, reasonable expression of genuine opinions and aspirations of others is part of their political DNA, given the polarised politics in the North so assiduously cultivated by Sinn Féin and the DUP – or perhaps I should refer to the polarised “absence of politics” which Adams and Foster have now brought about north of the border.
The 2011 census in Northern Ireland revealed that of children under the age of four, 49.2% were, or were being brought up as, Catholic, and 36% were being brought up as Protestant or other Christian denominations. That was nearly seven years ago. Other demographic data shows that well more than half (close to 60%) of school-children in the North are Catholic and that the same proportion of third-level students in Northern Ireland colleges are Catholic too.
While the third-level figure may represent a number of factors such as lower third-level participation rates and higher undergraduate migrancy to Britain among Protestants, there can be no doubt that the Protestant proportion of the North’s growing population is shrinking fast. Moreover, as the Catholic majority among children feeds into the child-bearing age cohort in ten years time this demographic trend will accelerate.
After Partition, the Protestants were 66% of the North’s population and the Catholics were 33%. But now the Catholics are around 42-44%, the Protestants are about 43- 45% - and both are minorities.
Any sectarian headcount is no guide as to how the voters of Northern Ireland would vote in a referendum on Irish unity. Most observers, myself included, and opinion pollsters believe that if such a poll were carried out in 2018, voters would reject Irish unity by a 70-30 margin.
So Arlene can relax a little for the time being on that front. Only Gerry Adams is calling for such a poll at this stage. And he’s not going to get one. He only demands a border poll to keep up the polarising drumbeat in his political hinterland. Like a dog barking angrily through railings, he would be sorely disappointed with the outcome of such a poll but would relish the divisive debate that preceded it.
No-one in Dublin is being aggressive. But any attempt to undermine or discard the Good Friday Agreement will be adamantly, if not aggressively, resisted. It is a constitutional cornerstone in both parts of this island. It is the only means of reconciling the two communities in the North.
Dublin wants the Good Friday Agreement to work, develop and prosper. Dublin and the rest of the EU is insisting that the agreement must not merely survive Brexit but flourish under Brexit.
Only Sinn Féin and the DUP are putting it under stress, perhaps because both parties harbour ideologues who would prefer to test it to destruction than to abandon their underlying prejudices.
Faced with these demographic realities, Northerners’ self-image is bound to change. Already, a sizable cohort of the population choose to describe themselves as Northern Irish, rather than Irish or British.
Over the next five years, when the Catholic-Protestant headcount arrives at equilibrium (with both in a minority), the cause of the Union or Irish unity will no longer be seen as the top priority of a sizable number of voters. The economic future of the North and its people will emerge as the real issue.
The result of the last Assembly elections suggests that neither Orange nor Green will have an effective outright majority at Stormont for the foreseeable future. Arlene should remember that she needs to work with those of the Catholic tradition – now more than ever.
The North was running a fiscal deficit of £9.2 billion per year in 2014. The UUP’s 2016 manifesto put a gross figure of £11 billion on the annual subvention from Westminster.
That colossal subsidy amounted in 2014 to around £5,000 per head of the population, which was £2,000 more than the Scottish subvention. The annual subvention per head may now be over £6,000, according to some economists.
It is no wonder that many voters – including nationalist voters – would pause to reflect on whether they really wish to reduce the social wealth of families by tens of thousands of pounds each year. Dublin’s cheque is not in the post.
Reverting to Arlene, I hope it is not seen as too “aggressive” to point out that her party’s viewpoint on Brexit was rejected massively by the people of Northern Ireland.
Even now, a great majority of Northerners hope for a soft Brexit that will leave no barriers to movement of goods and people across the border. That too is the hope of most MPs at Westminster. And it is the determined position of the 27 member states of the EU.
Parroting the glib and ignorant wishful thinking of the Gove-Johnson-Duncan Smith Tories that the UK does not need tariff-free trade in goods with the EU is not good enough from the DUP.
Even if the hard-line Brexiteers have their way and turn London and the south of England into some global free-trading hub, it is hard to see how a Northern Ireland, isolated behind a hard border on the “periphery of the periphery” of the UK, will prosper.
The DUP will not hold the balance of power in Westminster for much more than the duration of the UK-EU Brexit negotiations. At that point their MPs’ votes will be surplus to the requirements of the next administration in London. At that point, the £11 billion exchequer subsidy will surely be revisited.
Now is the time for Arlene to concentrate on making Northern Ireland’s economy grow at the same rate as the Republic. It isn’t just a matter of saving Bombardier. A hard border would impoverish the North; a hard Brexit could ruin the North.
So Simon should not take offence at being labelled “aggressive”. He needs to ignore that kind of criticism, just as Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern had to do for years in negotiations that I attended, and concentrate on doing the right thing by the people of both parts of this island.
People are weary of the Gerry Adams- Arlene Foster Punch and Judy show. The pair now wants their egos massaged by bringing in some outside high-profile mediator to convince them to be reasonable with each other.
Dublin must keep its eye on the real issues. Northern unionists should hope and pray for Dublin’s success.
Photo credit: Richter Frank-Jurgen via Wikimedia - https://www.flickr.com/photos/horasis/9163523833, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37930493