Current Affairs Politics

People Power – Taking Back The North

Census of “Northern Ireland” 2011, Aggregate Nationalities, Irish, Northern Irish, British
Census of “Northern Ireland” 2011, Aggregate Nationalities, Irish, Northern Irish, British

Sometimes the sheer two-faced hypocrisy of the average Unionist media sympathiser leaves one dumbfounded. And none more so than the ever-so flexible opinions of the Neo-Unionist apologist-writer Ruth Dudley-Edwards. As a “commentator” Dudley-Edwards has spent decades excoriating Irish Nationalism and Republicanism throughout the British and Irish media with repetitive allegations of tribalism, sectarianism, fascism and half-a-dozen other –isms. Yet a phrase frequently comes to mind when viewing her opinions: “…considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

Her latest propagandist nonsense on behalf of the British Unionist minority in Ireland follows weeks of violent protests in relation to the decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the number of days the British flag flies from the roof of the city hall to periods deemed to be of special significance to the Unionist minority in the city. A compromise readily agreed to by Irish Nationalist and liberal Unionist councillors following precedents established elsewhere across the north-east of Ireland (including the northern regional legislature at Stormont where sits all the main Nationalist and Unionist parties).

Most intelligent observers know full well that the rioting and threats by extremists from the Unionist minority following the vote have nothing to do with the actual flying of the British national flag from Belfast City Hall. The issue goes far beyond that. For two centuries and more the city of Belfast was at the heart of “British Ulster”. It was a colonial city in a British colonial plantation, the most thorough and long-lasting such plantation in Ireland. Nowhere else, outside of Dublin, did British rule in Ireland grow such deep and pernicious roots. Yet the city of Dublin and its colonial hinterland (the Pale) fell to Irish Nationalism over a century ago through the political, cultural and economic changes that stemmed from changing demographics in the region (principally as a result of An Gorta Mór or the Great Famine of the mid-1800s and the influx of monolingual or bilingual Irish-speakers from the rural heartlands of north Leinster, south Ulster and Connacht).

Over the last twenty years a similar phenomenon has been observable in the North of Ireland, the last remnant of the British colony on the island of Ireland. As those with an Irish identity have grown in number those with a British identity have retreated into a tighter and tighter cluster of communities centred around the east coast and the city of Belfast in particular. Yet that city has seen its own growth from within as the dominant Unionist majority has been supplanted by a narrow Nationalist majority, the vote by the city council reflecting that sea-change in population and allegiances.

That is the real story behind the flags’ issue. The “rivalry” between two national communities in the north-east of the country and the slow move towards demographic equilibrium. Rather than dam the Nationalist tide through the Peace Process and Belfast Agreement, which all-but ended forty years of military struggle, if anything the new power-sharing arrangements have accelerated the changes. The Irish Nationalist community, however one defines it, is in the ascendant across the greater part of the north-east of Ireland, in the process making many of the old statistical justifications for the British-imposed partition of the island irrelevant. If the country was to be partitioned today in order to appease the violence of the British minority on the island of Ireland, that minority would find itself retreating into a redoubt consisting of slivers of land taken from north Down, north-east Armagh, south and west Antrim, and eastern Derry. Belfast would find itself a candidate to become the new “West and East Berlin” of Europe; a city divided between the two nation-states of Ireland and the UK.

It is this dawning reality that is driving Unionism, giving it the new impetuous and purpose that sympathisers like Dudley-Edwards crave.

It’s not about a flag – it’s the demographics, stupid.

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