To survive, unionism now has to be inclusive of Northern Ireland’s Catholics | Malachi O’Doherty

To survive, unionism now has to be inclusive of Northern Ireland’s Catholics

Now that ‘Protestant Ulster’ no longer exists, defending the union will mean becoming secular and liberal

Jeffrey Donaldson leader of the Democratic Unionist Party joins the parade with the Orange Order at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Saturday, May 28, 2022.

Census results don’t predict change; they just help to describe what has happened so far. The transformation of Northern Ireland to the point where Roman Catholics now outnumber Protestants has already occurred, and it is no longer the place I grew up in.

This represents the collapse of the political idea that prevailed after partition and is clung to hopelessly still; that the survival of the union depends on unionism being Protestant. Now there can no longer be a majority for staying in the UK that does not include Catholics. Any strategy for defending the union must appeal across sectarian lines.

This assertion of “Protestant Ulster” was embodied in the most popular politician in the region, the thundering pastor, the Rev Ian Paisley, who founded the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and topped every vote to the European parliament before making his party the biggest in Northern Ireland and becoming first minister.

Paisley rejected the idea of a united Ireland because he feared that “Ulster”, as he called it, would be absorbed into a Catholic state. This had been the fear expressed by those who, more than a century ago, had opposed home rule, claiming it would amount to “Rome rule”.

Partition was devised to provide a territory that could be governed by a Protestant majority. The original conception is now obsolete – but that does not yet mean that partition must fail.

In the period of civil rights agitation in the late 1960s, people around Paisley absurdly imagined that the Catholic church was manipulating protest and an IRA uprising. Until the crisis created by the civil rights campaign, the Orange Order had an effective veto on the appointment of Stormont government ministers, all of whom had to be members of the Order.

And the monarchy was cherished as the defender of civil liberties against encroaching Catholicism and Gaelic culture through its preservation of the Protestant faith. Yet, when King Charles swore an oath recently to continue in that tradition there was no exultant crowing from unionists, no declaration from anybody that this honoured their deepest convictions and underscored the union.

Unionists don’t talk like Paisley any more. The vision of a Northern Ireland that can retain a preeminently Protestant character is obsolete. For my book, Can Ireland Be One?, I interviewed the current grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and he made it clear that he had already seen the change and the need to work with it. He said, “We need to coexist to preserve the union.”

He had recognised before the census result that Northern Ireland could only stay in the United Kingdom with the assent of large numbers of people who are members of the Catholic community and probably identify as Irish but who, as several polls have shown, already believe they are better off in the UK. This, however, would be a vulnerable union founded on pragmatism rather than passion or principle; not ideal from an Orange perspective but the best that is now on offer.

The last thing that is going to preserve the union is a political culture that would alienate Catholics and Irish-identifying people who have the numbers to vote Northern Ireland into a united Ireland. The only way to preserve the union is to make sure that those people feel at home within it. There is some hope of that.

As a student and a young man I believed that I lived in an Orange state in which I would always be disadvantaged. The longed-for escape from the shadow of Protestant unionism was a united Ireland, imagined in a future in which Ireland would be more prosperous – as it is now – and less confessional in its own character – as it is now – with the erosion of the influence of the Catholic church. The modern Ireland that I would feel more at home in has arrived at the same time as a Northern Ireland in which I am no longer in danger of being discriminated against.

A new leader like Ian Paisley emerging to proclaim Ulster’s inherent Protestant character would simply be laughed at now. Paisley himself was an anachronism in his own lifetime with nowhere to go but to lead his party into partnership with the largest party of the Catholic community, Sinn Féin. Yet, even with these results, unionism has a hand to play, if it only knew it. It needs to demonstrate that Northern Ireland works and that it has a secular, liberal, inclusive culture in which everyone enjoys full and fully respected citizenship.

So far, it has not been doing well at that, with its core Protestant evangelical culture having tried to block legislative reform to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage. Even when campaigning against the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, addressed protest rallies supported by loyalist bands, rallies at which a Catholic may not have felt safe.

A unionism that was once the dominant political culture now behaves like an eccentric minority, winning no converts and alienating itself instead of alienating others.

  • Malachi O’Doherty is a writer living in Belfast. His latest book is Can Ireland Be One? (Merrion Press)