Northern Ireland is currently experiencing a state of peace that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. This is evidenced in the comparatively low rate of politically motivated violence and killing during 2011 and the beginning of this year. This is, perhaps, what prompted Martin McGuiness to recently bring the issue of the North’s relationship with the UK, which had been somewhat sidelined because of the current financial crisis, to the forefront of political discussion again.
In recent years, the political agenda in Northern Ireland has been dominated by the economy, as it has in the Republic and indeed most of the Western world. However, in the Irish Examiner last month, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland suggested that a referendum to decide whether Northern Ireland would continue its union with United Kingdom “could take place any time between 2016 or 2020.”
While its relationship with the UK is clearly never far from discussion, broaching the topic in such an explicit manner could potentially destabilise the fragile state of peace Northern Ireland is currently experiencing. Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, believes that “any talk on a referendum would be destabilising and it’s much, much too soon.” In contrast, Dr. Michael Anderson, lecturer in the UCD School of Politics, disagrees and maintains that “the moderate way that he [McGuiness] said it … hasn’t seemed to have caused any ripples in the North.”
At a time when most average citizens are preoccupied with the economy, it begs the question whether raising the possibility of reunification isn’t just a political manoeuvre aimed at vote winning. Echoing this sentiment is Ross Hussey, Councillor for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who sees the issue as mere political posturing in order to keep Republican constituents happy. “People may vote for Republicans and Sinn Féin, but when push comes to shove, they would quite happily remain in the Union.”
However, the possibility of a referendum also demonstrates an important step forward for Northern Ireland in proving its ability to govern itself with democracy, rather than extremism as the driving force behind politics. This sentiment is echoed by Conall McDevitt, from the Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP), who believes that such a referendum would be far from destabilising, and would in fact enhance democracy in the North. “I’ve always had the view that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t test opinions on whether the people in Northern Ireland want a united Ireland or not.”
It is equally possible that the issue of the Northern Ireland’s union with the UK has resurfaced in light of recent figures that suggest that, within a generation, the majority of its population will be from a Catholic background. Legislation states that “the British government can call a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland if it appears likely that a majority of people in the province want to break with Britain and form a united Ireland.” Although this would not necessarily bring about the criteria needed to call for a referendum, the appearance of a clear Catholic majority would traditionally be viewed as an equal growth in nationalist sentiment.
This could make the possibility of a united Ireland more of a reality than ever before, as the time-old dichotomy of Catholic-Republican and Protestant-Unionist will be tested, as will the very beliefs of the people of Northern Ireland themselves. McDevitt believes that such a majority would at least bring about a more receptive climate for a possible reunification. “I think it would make the likelihood of a positive vote for reunification greater so … there is a possibility that as the demographic shifts so will support.”
Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, on the other hand, disagrees and believes that associating religion and politics is far too restrictive. He broadens the issue out to a democratic one, arguing that a potential referendum “isn’t for me about a Protestant majority or a Catholic majority. This is about citizens making a rational and logical, informed choice in their self-interest and national interest.”
The results of the 2002 census in Northern Ireland would suggest that religion still plays a large role, but certainly less so than in the past. Fourteen per cent of people declared themselves atheist or declined to state their religion. This was the largest number in this category in all of the UK and significantly larger than the same category in the Republic in the 2006 census, where just four per cent of people claimed to be atheist or didn’t state a religion.
Yet, even if the number of ardent followers is decreasing, the vast majority of the population continue to describe their background or upbringing as religious, coming from either a Catholic (forty-four per cent) or Protestant (fifty-three per cent) background, while only two per cent claimed no religious background. The contrast between religious upbringing and actual engagement in religious practice could be put down to the increase in atheism worldwide. McDevitt credits the release of religion’s hold on people’s political motivations to an increasing open-mindedness amongst Northern Ireland’s young people, the first to have grown up in relative peace for generations. “Amongst younger generations [there is] an increasing open-mindedness … people are looking to define themselves and not be defined by others.”
For Pollak, “a Catholic majority is no guarantee of a vote for a United Ireland” but he does, however, maintain that traditional divisions still have a strong role to play in Northern Irish society. “You can always say society is peaceful… but the divisions, the sectarian divide is there, if not as deep as ever… it’s still the dominant feature of Northern Irish politics and society.”
It is also arguable that the deciding factor for many people regarding being united with the UK is no longer about political ideals, but rather a question of economics. This is certainly what Ross Hussey believes to be the case. “Clearly in the North, people are aware of the economic situation in the Republic… and people [realise they are] better off with the pound in their pocket.”
In relation to economic control in Northern Ireland, Anderson points to that fact that members of Stormont do not actually exert much control over daily issues. He views this as one reason why the average citizen is not overly concerned with what discussions go on there. “There’s a distance between the political elite and the ordinary people, and many ordinary people regard what the politicians are doing as irrelevant … Bread and butter issues are still controlled from London … I think most people in the North are fairly happy that that is the case.”
The recent discussions surrounding the possibility of a referendum on seceding from Britain also undeniably put the spotlight on the very notion of Northern Irish identity. Identification with either the Republic or Britain is certainly still important to most people in Northern Ireland. There is also, however, an emerging emphasis on simply being Northern Irish, with Pollak believing that “the Northern Protestants and the Northern Catholics are much closer to each other than they are to … Britain … or to the South. A lot of Southerners see Northerners now as kind of semi-foreigners.” This assertion of pride in a specifically Northern identity is echoed by McDevitt. “I think the vast majority of Northerners feel just that: Northern … and an important part of that is feeling proudly Northern, as well as proudly Irish or proudly British.”
Of course, it is difficult to discuss the possibility of a referendum in Northern Ireland without discussing the similar referendum that is set to take place in Scotland in 2014, proposed by the current Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond. Politicians in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Westminster alike will surely be watching what occurs in Scotland closely. Adams believes that “the circumstances between the North and Scotland are different, but the fact that there is a debate about the value of the British union will inevitably bring a focus onto the relationship between the North and Britain.”
A vote to secede from Britain would be of huge consequence to Ulster Unionists, who identify strongly with Scotland, a relationship that dates from the period of the plantations. Andy Pollak describes a vote for Scottish independence as “a bad blow for Unionism.” This opinion is shared by Michael Anderson, who also highlights the close relationship between Northern and Scottish unionists. “[Northern Unionists are] uncomfortable with the idea that the Scots might be leaving the Union… it seems to kind of take away from the solidity of the Union.”
This is perhaps because, as McDevitt explains, it undermines the old-fashioned type of state unity, which he believes is something that must be left behind by both sides of the political divide, if Northern Ireland is to progress towards more political independence. “The situation in Scotland proves that the UK is becoming an increasingly federal state and that it is quite possible … to explore new senses of sovereignty [in federal states].”
As for the actual outcome of such a referendum, opinion is, naturally, divided. Anderson questions whether the referendum will ever even see the light of day. “[The referendum] is an important gesture, but it’s gestural, rather than real.” This view is taken further by Pollak who believes that “there’s not a chance in hell that [the referendum] would be carried.”
The very suggestion of a referendum provoked an interesting response from Hussey, who quickly shot down the idea and instead suggested that it was more likely that “the Republic will seriously consider rejoining the Commonwealth and in the future you may actually find some unification with Britain, as opposed to Northern Ireland reuniting with the Republic.”
Adams, unsurprisingly, does not think this likely and sees “no compelling arguments that would persuade Irish people living in the south to contemplate either of these two options.” Regardless of the chances of a referendum passing, Adams also makes the point that, as a democratic state, the people in Northern Ireland have the right to decide whether they wish to remain a part of the United Kingdom or not. “Sinn Féin will fight a referendum to win … And while Unionists may feel they have many reasons not to engage with Republicans and Nationalists, the reality is that we are all living in a society which is in transition,” he says.
Arguably, the very ability to discuss a referendum on seceding from Britain in the political domain, although its consequences are as of yet unclear, cannot be described as anything other than a milestone in Northern Irish democracy. It seems that Northern Ireland is now developing a stronger identity of its own, rather than one tied rigidly to the religious dichotomy of the past, which could prove essential to its future stability. As a state which has only relatively recently been given the power to govern itself, the discussions surrounding the possible referendum will be the strongest test Northern Ireland’s recent peace will face, as well causing a moment of strong self-reflection for its people. As Adams puts it, the issue of referendum will boil down to “finally, democratically and peacefully resolving Ireland’s centuries-old British colonial legacy.”