Opinion: Is Northern Ireland the elephant in the coalition’s room?

On the surface, David Cameron is the first Prime Minister in generations for whom ‘The Ireland Question” is down the list of priorities.

The Good Friday Agreement has been a glorious success, with the recent devolving of policing powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly the final piece of the power-sharing jigsaw and the birth of a more conventional policy rather than tribal politics in the province.

The 2010 general election saw the Alliance Party gain a seat, the moderate nationalist SDLP doing better than expected and the the failure of the anti-power sharing Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party to make gains seems to indicate a welcome shift to the centre in Northern Ireland.

But as is always the case in the North, crisis seems to only ever be a single irregular occurrence away, and a major test of the coalition could be in how the different parties react in the event of the wheels coming off in Northern Ireland.

The biggest danger to the peace process comes from fringe republican and loyalist groups. The UVF were last weekend blamed for killing a man in East Belfast. This is the twenty-first murder attributed to the group since they went on ceasefire.

While this alleged murder was apparently part of an internal loyalist dispute, it damages confidence among all in the province, stoking fear and raising questions about the intentions the paramilitaries on both sides.

The Republican paramilitary groups are splitting into ever small factions, but periodically news breaks of shots fired at the police, or a bomb being defused. The worry must be that another Omagh-style atrocity cant be far away.

These micro-sized Republican groups are pursuing a tactic of trying to wreck the peace process by porovoking the British government/loyalists into an over-the-top retaliation following an attack by the Republicans. This retaliation would (in the minds of the dissidents) collapse the peace process and force the Provisional IRA to abandon their ceasefire and resume the Troubles, much as happened following “Bloody Sunday” in 1972 to start the Northern Irish Troubles in the first instance.

How the Conservative party would respond to any such provocation would be a real test of how far they have come on their modernisation project.

But even without the threat of renewed violence, there are many challenges ahead for governments of Britain and of the Republic of Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement was only ever intended to be the ‘end of the beginning’, with much left to be evolved through future negotiation. The biggest single area of potential future conflict is likely to come as the demographic changes in the North mean that Sinn Fein become the largest party in the Assembly. While much has been made of the co-operation between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists in recent times, that has happened within the context of the Unionists being the largest party and supplying the First Minister.

How Unionists would respond to a Sinn Fein first minister as part of the power sharing agenda is something which keen observers of politics in the province are concerned about. And if Sinn Fein do supply the First Minister within the context of the North having a majority nationalist population, as all the demographic indicators point to within the next decade, the likelihood is that they will try to trigger moves towards unification, as are provided for in the Good Friday Agreement.

This indicates that reunification can only happen if the majority of the population in both communities consent. On the surface it would appear that the matter is tied up with that sentence. But if Sinn Fein try to trigger a referendum, even if only for politically opportunistic reasons, splits which will ensue in unionism between those who would rather be governed from Dublin than ruled by Sinn Fein and those who will try to trigger the end of power sharing. That will be a real test of the coalition’s resolve in an area which has caused much division historically within both parties.

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “This indicates that reunification can only happen if the majority of the population in both communities consent.”
    Is this actually spelt out in the GFA? Or is that an interpretation? I wouldn’t’ve thought SF would’ve agreed to that… How would one work out a referendum of Unionists versus Nationalists? What about people who don’t want to be identified in either camp? Surely this would be unworkable??

  • The GFA only requires a only a majority vote to change the constitutional status. However such a move pre-supposes that every Catholic will vote one way and every Protestant will vote one way if the changing domography argument is to hold water. Amongst my Catholic friends is a reluctance to consent to the idea that a United Ireland will be the Panacea that others in the Nationalist community claim. It will require a great deal of persuasion in the Catholic/Nationalist population to win a referendum on change let alone the Unionist part of Northern Ireland.

    As for the Coalition it remains to be seen if they can resist the temptation to overeact on the provocations from the dissident rumps on both sides of the community. The signs from this side of the water are that The PSNI appear to be confident of dealing with the situation. Loyalist panic merchants are already calling for the troops return and that must be a complete utter last resort, and only at the request of the head of the PSNI.

  • Paul McKeown 10th Jun '10 - 4:01pm

    A very interesting post.

    I would have thought that the Conservative Party would finally have realised, given its acceptance of devolution in Scotland and Wales, and peace in Northern Ireland brought about by power-sharing agreement with a North-South dimension, that it does not have a dog in the fight regarding Northern Ireland’s identity politics.

    I come originally, and a long time ago, from the South Down area, brought up within the unionist community, but I always abhorred the brontosaurean narrative that I heard time and time again, supposedly in my name, prepared at any moment to trample underfoot any who found little to love in its primitive message of unthinking loyalty to a red, white and blue identity and its associated totems. I remember Ian Paisley waving his firearms certificate in the air outside Belfast City Hall, what message was that intended to give? An intensely hypocritical one, in truth, for someone who always publicly declared his opposition to armed loyalist groups. Indeed my MP, to my horror and shame at the time, was Enoch Powell, whose oftspoken themes of an King and Empire, unchanging whatever else changed in the world, had been rejected by mainstream politics in England. Given the nature of the community in South Down, I actually had more friends as a child and young man across the community divide than within my own community. This was a sure signal of the changing demographic, which resulted finally in the election in 1987 of Eddie McGrady of the SDLP.

    There are several things that many commentators often miss, particularly those from “across the water”.

    The first is the number of people that vote across community lines. Take the 2010 general election in South Down, in which Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) defeated Catriona Ruane (SF) with a majority of more than eight thousand. But where the unionist votes? Adding them all up, they come to 8,200 or thereabouts. This doesn’t chime with the demographics of the area at all, even on a low turn-out. The only sensible conclusion is that two thousand odd unionist electors cast their ballot across the community divide for the nationalist SDLP candidate.

    Does this mean, though, that those two thousand unionists have become nationalists? Nothing seems, to me, less likely. What happened was that they wanted their voice rejecting Sinn Fein to be heard and they understood that the General Election was not a plebiscite regarding the national identity of Northern Ireland. In other words politics in Northern Ireland is growing up and people understand that the national identity of Northern Ireland cannot change without consent, despite any Sinn Fein coat trailing to the contrary. Tactical voting now takes place not solely to support a unionist or nationalist candidate within one’s own community, but in some constituencies across community lines, too, or in support or rejection of candidates on issues other than identity.

    Another interesting signal of changing times was the election of the excellent Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, Lord Mayor of Belfast, to represent East Belfast in the House of Commons. She defeated Peter Robinson (anyone remember Clontibret?), which is ironic, because he had himself become an MP in 1979 by defeating another excellent Alliance candidate, Oliver Napier, by less than a thousand votes. In the intervening decades his seat became enormously “safe” and the Alliance Party nearly disappeared out of view. Most of his vote came from working class unionists. Naomi Long must have stripped that working class vote away, to herself, and it is also clear that those voters felt safe voting for a party that stands for no national identity, but leaves that to the electors themselves. I should be noted that Naomi Long is the first “liberal” elected to represent a constituency in Northern Ireland since James Brown Dougherty in 1914.

    As to the recent loyalist shooting across Belfast on the Shankill Road, it should be pointed out that Dawn Purivs, the leader of the PUP, the small leftwing unionist party traditionally linked to the UVF, resigned not only her leadership, but also her membership, and to widespread community applause. People turned out in masses, despite considerable intimidation, to the funeral of the murdered Bobby Moffett. Perhaps the Alliance Party might attract further working class support in the wake of this, as has been suggested by some observers, who is to know.

    Sinn Fein is likely to become the largest single party in Northern Ireland, that is a matter of simple observation. Does it mean that the 6 counties of Northern Ireland will join an enlarged 32 county Republic? Again here things are not entirely clear. How many “nationalists” would actually vote for that in any plebiscite? It is thought that many “nationalists” aren’t actually bothered that much one way or another when all is said and done. They vote “nationalist” because of memory of the unfair way that they were treated by monolithic unionists, not because achieving a 32 county state is necessarily worth the upheaval that would come with it. A sufficient majority to achieve 50% + 1? Eventually perhaps, but not immediately that “nationalists” become a demographic majority. The impact of immigration is also a factor. How many immigrants would actually vote against the union?

    Even if Northern Ireland were to decide to join up with the Republic of Ireland, the 64 thousand dollar question is how welcome that would be in the Dáil Éireann. Ireland has enormous economic difficulties, the addition of 1.6 million from the North bringing an additional burden of relative poverty is hardly likely to be greeted with great enthusiasm. That and the threat of the likely resurgence in loyalist militantism is likely to make any transition very problematic: I can’t see troops of the Irish army being greeted with garlands on the Sandy Row in any immediate future. I suspect that the parts of the Bunreacht na hÉireann dealing with the national territory were written partly for the sake of sentiment and not meant to be taken entirely at face value.

    What will actually happen, is that North – South links will broaden and deepen and much more governance will take place on a basis of a shared future for all communities for the geographical entity of Ireland. Perhaps the Sinn Fein wish for seats in the Dáil for politicians from Ulster may meet their immediate requirements for greater integration, without putting bellows to the spark of loyalist opposition. The truth of the matter is to ask how many unionist politican would actually reject a seat in the Dáil whilst retaining their seats in the Commons, too, for after all how many politicians in history have a record of rejecting voice and power granted them? As part of the deal, Sinn Fein would have to understand that a monolithic nationalism is not going to win any argument and will create new trouble where none proviously existed. Ultimately Sinn Fein will have to drop their abstentionist policy too and take their seats at Westminster. Is such a hybrid, provided the associated West Lothian questions that would inevitably arise, not the best and most rational solution to an otherwise insoluble conundrum?

    Who wants a new edition of the Troubles? I doubt Sinn Fein does, no matter what is fundamentalist might be. The inescapable conclusion is that if the North – South links broaden and deepen, the East – West link must nevertheless be retained for the forseeable future. Passports can be chosen; life taken can, however, never be given back.

  • david thorpe 10th Jun '10 - 4:43pm

    the point I was making about consent of both sides is:

    If sf become the largest party and wish to call a referendum

    1) the mechanism to allow this to happen is not very explicit in the GFA, if they wanted to call it and the unionists didnt cameorn would be in a tough position.

    2) but if politicians on both sides wanted to, his position would be easier.

    Its easy to know which way a community votes by analysisng the results in each consituency seprately.

    I dont think the republic of ireland government, while aware of the difficulkties would reject unity, any politician who delivers it would be a hero.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:25am


    How would the Irish government prepare for a changeover of nationality, given the violence that would almost certainly greet such an eventuality, were it to happen overnight? The Irish army and the Garda Síochána are and will be much less able to deal with this than the British government were and are. If ever this were to occur, it would have to be via a decades long struggle for hearts and minds. Such a process has hardly begun. I don’t even believe that if a plebiscite were held today that more than 2/3 of the “nationalist” community would vote in favour, as it is simply impractical and potentially extremely dangerous idea. Devolution is working today, the onus must be on making it work better. Any change in national identity must follow a gradualist course. Utopianism is often, indeed almost always the wrong course in politics. If Sinn Fein were to push for the impossible, the consequences could indeed be very destablising, as you suggest. The idea of “devolution super max++” with a much deeper integration north – south must surely be one that Sinn Fein can sell to its membership and supporters. The idea that politicians from the “Black North” can take seats in the Dáil to deal with issues devolved to a 32 county level (and no other issues naturally) is surely a strong intermediate step that Sinn Fein could accept and the unionist community could be persuaded is in the best interest of all (albeit with great reluctance and dismay) , provided that the east – west link is retained for forseeable decades to come, alongside seats in the Commons and soon to be elected Lords (again provided that the necessary West Lothian style issues are resolved). I have no idea whether such a concept of shared nationality has ever been attempted elsewhere, but I fear the consequences for peace in Northern Ireland where there no gradual movement in such a direction. Of course such a concept of shared sovereignty carries with it many difficult issues that would have to resolved, but, frankly, what are the alternatives that could satisfy the political narratives ranging from those of Sinn Fein to the DUP?

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:40am


    And frankly, why did the various unionists object so vehemently to the idea of north – south consultative bodies? Because they saw the writing on the wall, albeit a wall that is perhaps yet half a century away. Demographics may well eventually result in a 32 county Irish state, but it is the job of politicians north and south of the Irish border and east and west of the “water” to ensure that peace is maintained along the way and that any process of change takes place gradually and with the consent of all affected by it. I suspect that if a shared sovereignty structure were to come into being that the issue might simply go away, it could satisfy everyone’s needs for identity.

    The one factor that you have not mentioned is that of potential (albeit currently unlikely) Scottish independence. Such an event would have a lasting impact on unionist confidence and self belief. It is hard to predict what the result would be on Northern Irish politics. Many unionists/loyalists have a strong sense of connection with Scotland, given the shared history of the plantations and even the much earlier Dalriadan kingdoms.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:53am


    As to your first point “1) the mechanism to allow this to happen is not very explicit in the GFA”, the phrase used was “constructive ambiguity”. The point was to keep things unclear that would have created an obstacle to bringing about the agreement; the actual meaning was in some sense clear, but deniable in all directions. The imperative was peace. All sides will continue to engage the principle of constructive ambiguity as devolution develops further, deepens and broadens.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 1:56am


    And if Tony Blair is ever to be thanked, it will surely be for this political concept of pure genius, “constructive ambiguity”!

    I’m not his greatest fan, but for this particular advance in political philosophy, I will surely speak his praises!

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 8:37am


    Thanks, you have started a very interesting blog! Could I suggest that you might look into how video is provided on your site; I tried looking at the interview with Shami Chakrabarti using Opera and then Firefox, both failing, but had success only with Internet Explorer.

    Surely the reason that UCUNF failed in the GE/2010, is that far too many people in Northern Ireland depend on the state for their income, so that a political party wanting to reduce government expenditure is simply going to gain little traction. There is much romantic history wrapped in defending the union by Liberal Unionists, who then became subsumed into the Conservative Party, but that link has been lost half a century ago, but romantic history does not fill wallets, so people will vote instead for a prosaic present instead.

    I agree with you that a plebiscite would fail to deliver Irish unity at the present time.

    It is interesting to note though, that Fianna Fáil has established as a political party in Northern Ireland; what signal does that give?

  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 9:05am


    What do you think is the likelihood of “normal” politics on a non-confessional basis depillarised basis taking hold in Northern Ireland? As surely the question of a change in national identity is dependent on a plebiscite, surely that means that unionism and nationalism are terms not needed for everyday? I understand that Sinn Fein is a great obstacle along the way to the establishment of “normal” politics. As it is, Northern Ireland’s electors have precious few choices in terms of economic and social agendas; currently the main choices are pork barrel unionism (DUP) or green Labour (SDLP), hardly inspiring. The political market is just too divided along confessional lines.

  • david thorpe 11th Jun '10 - 11:27am

    @ o’neil

    my demagraphic indicators are not what you are talking about i.e. religion. they are how the consituents vote and how the votes for the parties add up.

    the nationalist popualtion is rising, but their incentive to vote is declining i.e. they are happier in a power sharing scenario, but on a vote of the magnitude of unity that would be different.

    @ paul

    some very good points.
    in terms of how the republic would handle itt? it would, I would imagine be phased in ovber time, also I would anticipate that to prevent some sort of new episode of the toroubles centred on the republic, and perpetrated by the Ulster Unionist militias, that the north would continue to have some form of self government, and seperate police

  • Paul McKeown 12th Jun '10 - 1:02pm


    There have been an increasing number of people who can’t get themselves worked up about the identity question for the last twenty or thirty years. That it is as high as 40% amonst today’s future generation bodes well for the future. Unfortunately there is little on offer to persuade them to vote, just the same old sectarian political parties.

    Alliance seems unlikely ever to make inroads in the west of the province, and perhaps it suffers from not offering an identifiable ideology beyond non-sectarianism.

    UCUNF (really stupid name) just seemed doomed from the start, peeing off the last Ulster Unionist MP was just moronic, because a party without representation at Westminster may become seen as irrelevant, and that can be a self-fulfilling perception. It will be an uphill battle to persuade nationalist voters to support a conservative party (I loved your “did bring more than a few liberal, seculars out into the daylight” bit – more Liberal Conservatives! – which perhaps sheds further light on the Cameron project, certainly more attractive to the general floating voter one would have thought than old style turnipism), whilst it retains its unionist roots. Surely a reformulation of the unionist position is necessary? Something like, “We believe in maintaining the Union whilst that commands the support of the majority in Northern Ireland, but should the majority express the wish for a change in national identity, we would negotiate in good faith to ensure that this would happen in a way that would secure the best deal for our people, whilst preserving peace and maintaining prosperity. We do not see this as an issue for the immediate future, certainly not in the next decade.” And some honest statement of recognition that Unionism has in the past unfairly disadvantaged the nationalist population, and such is to be condemned? Rather like the honest “nasty party” self evaluation that the mainlad Conservatives went through, which has enabled them to make a clean break with some former beliefs and policies, which were holding them back electorally.

    And the SDLP is also at a crossroads. Declan O’Loan’s foot-and-mouth episode threw the dilemma into the public forum. Whither the SDLP? Towards a monolithic nationalist/republican pact with SF? Struggle on as a moderate party of nationalism? Or towards a non-sectarian party of the centre-left, with a more neutral formulation regarding the identity question?

    How do the moderates eat into the DUP and SF vote? Success, after all, breeds success. Perhaps the moderates must wait for further (inevitable I suspect) corruption scandals and the like to erode public confidence. I suspect that they must find charismatic leadership. Margaret Ritchie seems outspoken and a fighter, unlike the drips that lead the SDLP for most of the last decade, which should do her party well. But the Ulster Unionists (or conservatives) just seem to have an utterly uninspiring leadership; Reg Empey does come across as really dried out. Where is the new generation? Trevor Ringland, perhaps, with his good public profile as a successful former sportsman? Admittedly I have no idea what the internal politics is of the UUP, and that might be utterly implausible.

    But tell me, what does the formation of Fianna Fáil in Northern Ireland tell you? I can only make sense of it in one of two ways:
    a) they want to damage Sinn Fein where it has its greatest support.
    b) they believe that Northern Ireland is in its last decades fully within the Union and they wish to manage a transition of nationality in a way that mimimises upheaval.
    Can you think of any other reasons for FF to establish itself in the North? It is a hardnosed party, and sees itself, rather like the Conservatives on the mainland, as the party of government. I can’t see it doing anything out of pure idealism. Of course, when they do start contesting elections, their platform will become clear, but I suspect that the motive has to be (b) above.

  • Paul McKeown 12th Jun '10 - 1:10pm

    @David Thorpe

    I just carried out a survey, admittedly of one! “Herself” is Irish. I asked her what she thought people in the “South” would say if the “North” were to want to join them. She looked at me like I had grown horns, it was funny. When I did get an answer though, she said that people in the Irish Republic would be really worried about such a development and would be reluctant.

    I think there is a lot of sentimental talk on the identity issue, but people are much more realistic when it all boils down. Upheaval is not wanted. Any developments have to be gradual and not upset the apple cart.

  • Paul McKeown 12th Jun '10 - 2:27pm


    Thinking about it, perhaps, there might be another motive for Fianna Fáil to establish in Northern Ireland. Perhaps at the time of the GFA or afterwards, the British and Irish governments decided that NI needed a political party with a clear Republican perspective that had not been compromised by violence. One can only speculate.

  • I think some of the statements in the final part of David’s post are a bit dubious.

    The biggest single area of potential future conflict is likely to come as the demographic changes in the North mean that Sinn Fein become the largest party in the Assembly.

    This is isn’t so much a question of demographics as of the changing fortunes of the different political parties. Under the rules the largest party takes the First Minister position, but they don’t need an overall majority in the Assembly. So nationalists can take the FM position without being a majority in the province. If Sinn Fein become the largest party it will be because the SDLP are fairing poorly and the Unionist vote is split.

    If Sinn Fein do supply the First Minister within the context of the North having a majority nationalist population, as all the demographic indicators point to within the next decade, the likelihood is that they will try to trigger moves towards unification

    Most experts on the demographics believe that the nationalist vote will plateau over the next few years. I don’t think many are predicting a nationalist majority any time in the forseeable future. Again, even if there is a Sinn Fein First Minister that wouldn’t necessarily mean there’s a nationalist majority.

    This indicates that reunification can only happen if the majority of the population in both communities consent.

    The Good Friday Agreement does not require a double majority of both communities. There only needs to be a bare majority of one vote in favour of reunification.

    Of course whether unionists would accept the outcome if it went against them is another question. But unionists have invested a great deal in the bare majority “consent” principle. In fact it is the basis of Northern Ireland’s current place in the UK. If the province’s status required the consent of both communities then we would probably have some sort of joint sovereignty.

    splits which will ensue in unionism between those who would rather be governed from Dublin than ruled by Sinn Fein

    There is no prospect of the province being “ruled by Sinn Fein”. In fact if Sinn Fein take the position of First Minister they will have no more power than at present. The “Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister” (OFMDFM) is a collegiate position. The FM and Deputy FM take all decisions by unanimity, and neither has more authority than the other. So the distinction is purely symbolic. The whole issue is a red herring and just a symptom of unionist vanity.

  • david thorpe 14th Jun '10 - 12:45pm


    its at least partly a question of demagraphics in that neither SF nor any other nationalist party will be the largest unless the demagraphics change, which they are doing.

    your second point ive alreday clarified above.

    your thirsd point: I agree sf may not have much more actual power but anyone who observes northern ireland will be awrae of the powre of symbolism and sentiment in that area.

    @paul mckeeown

    as far as I know Fianna Fail have scaled back their efforst in the notrth, the reaosns for this can only be speculated upon.
    FF are the most traditionally nationalist or ‘republicasn of the parties in the republic, and its still more of an issue at their grassroots level than it would be for other parties in the republic.
    also I am from the republic myself, and I do agree there would be a ,lot of caution but I think a majority would go for it by a long way

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '10 - 12:58pm

    Northern Ireland is an “elephant in the room” because if most English people were allowed to say about it what they really think, it would be very, very rude. We keep indulging that bunch of whinging tax-sucking people whose problems come down to them mostly vote for loonies and supposing “it isn’t us, it’s our politicians” is a satisfactory excuse for what it leads to. Moan at them a bit about this, and the inevitable reply will be “Oh, but you just don’t understand”.

    Oh yes, we are supposed to understand them, but why doesn’t anyone ask them to recriprocate? If the Unionists were to understand us they might realise what we think about them is “To us, you’re just another bunch of Irish, and pretending to be British makes you look even sillier, especially as you do it in ways which the real British long ago gave up doing”. To the Nationalists it would be “No, we are not all evil imperialists intent on dominating you, go and ask the Unionists what we really think. You might note that we have given away all we once held in Africa etc, we really aren’t that keen on you lot that we’ve any more reason to hang onto you against your will. Now most people here in England have got over what our granddaddies did to each other, and gays blacks etc have all had plenty of anti-discrimination laws put in since the bad old days of the 1960s because actually we listened to what they said, we agreed and acted. Perhaps you might just pay attention to the fact that the word here is ‘said’ and not ‘bombed'”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '10 - 1:16pm

    Now, we realise that the Shinners have the brains even though as a non-Irish Catholic it seems clear to me their immortal souls are damned to hell, so the wisest of them will have clocked this and that’s why it was always “push them a little more, and they’ll give in, hang the consequences”. Which is why we have to indulge them and give Mr McGuinness et al comfy well-paid jobs and pretend they’ve achieved something more than disposing of the decent moderates before accepting what was on the table in the first place anyway. Still, the people of NI do have the option of consigning Mr McGuinness et al’s mortal body to the dole queue by voting them out, which done might also wake them up to humility and repentance and save their souls as well. Mr and Mrs Robinson’s practical action for the advancement of moderation might usefully have been extended beyond East Belfast, though thinking too much about that would be of most help to those devout Catholics still struggling with Humanae Vitae.

  • david thorpe 14th Jun '10 - 1:23pm


    mcguiness and the other prominent figures in sinnfein are not catholics, they are aetheists, as most very left wing people tend to be.

    most irish people agree that britian are no lonegr ‘imperialists’ when it comes to the north, indeed its only members of the hard left in britain who use that word inr elation to britians actions in rieland, Provisional sinn fein wouldnt use it.
    Im no sinn fein supporter and dont like the murderous tactics of the ira, but there was a legitimate grievance, which sparked the troubles as todays bloody sunday enquiry report will show,

  • david thorpe 14th Jun '10 - 1:26pm

    also the majority of irish ‘catholics’ do not and never have supported sinnf ein or indeed the provisional ira

  • david thorpe 14th Jun '10 - 1:54pm

    adams is, maguiness is not as far as I know, he may use the language of it though. on others in the northern leadership I wouldnt know, in the souther leadership, there arent many devout catholics involved.

    but as the demagrapchs alter they will become the biggest party in terms of seats won as well.

    the bloody sunday report today could be the eleephant unleashed in the room.

  • All the IRA supporters I have met (who actually are Irish, rather than UK hard left) have been fervent Roman Catholics. When you see McGuinness interviewed, you may notice on occasions a Celtic cross standing behind him. Add to that his clinically polite discourse, without a swear word or crude allusion (contra Adams, who is very crude indeed). McGuinness strikes me as a deeply religious man who is willing to kill for his beliefs. He treats all the myths fed to him by priests and family as real, rather than pseudo-history and partisan narrative gone mad.

    Sinn Fein IRA ideology is an incoherent mixture of ultra-montaine Catholicism, bigoted nationalism and Stalinist economics. The last thing it could possibly do is form a programme for government. Remember that Sinn Fein IRA not only wants a United Ireland, it wants a United Ireland ruled by Sinn Fein IRA, an outcome not exactly on the wish-list of the political and economic elites in the South.

    Nationalists have been claiming that they will one day form a majority in the North since the 1960s, and it has still not happened. It is dependent on two variables – differential birth rate and differential rates of emigration. While the Roman Catholic birth rate is declining, fewer Roman Cathollics are emigrating (rural depopulation having gone about as far as it goes). But there are two copmplicating factors that get thrown in the mix: (1) many of the “new” Roman Catholics are internal EU migrants, such as athe big Portuguese community in Dungannon; and (2) there is a growing third category of people who espouse no religion.

    The Roman Catholic Church has taken a big hit in Ireland over its child-abuse scandal, and I don’t suppose the growing army of ex-Catholics in the South is going to flock to Sinn Fein IRA. On top of that, the recent revelations of child abuse in the Adams family is likely to remind people of the symbiotic relationship between the gunmen and the most reactionary elements in the Church.

    A Roman Catholic majority followed by a referendum on secession could lead to a Bosnia type situation (ie, civil war). A possible way out is a comdonium arrangement where people living in the Province could choose their nationality. That might prove to be the only viable option.

  • On the question of “triggering” a referendum on reunification: The Belfast Agreement states that the right to order a referendum belongs to the British Secretary of State who

    shall exercise the power …if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.

    Local politicians have no formal role, so nationalists can call for a referendum but ultimately the decision rests with the British government of the day.

    Personally I think it would be unwise to hold a poll unless there is some chance that it will be won. A futile referendum would only stoke up tensions and bitterness.

    As you know, sometimes there’s support for a doomed referendum intended to provided “certainty” or give a short term political boost to unionists. An example is the border poll held in 1973, which was boycotted by nationalists and did nothing for cross-community relations. David Trimble more recently called for a referendum in 2002; he was hoping it would be held at the same time as the next Assembly election and boost the turnout of his party’s supporters.

  • @Sesenco:

    A [Catholic] majority followed by a referendum on secession could lead to a Bosnia type situation (ie, civil war). A possible way out is a condominium arrangement where people living in the Province could choose their nationality. That might prove to be the only viable option.

    I think there is a lot to be said for a third way option on Northern Ireland’s future. One option is a form of condominium/joint-sovereignty, another is some kind of repartition. (You might be unaware that people living in the province already have the right to choose their nationality.)

    But the time to advocate an alternative is now. One cannot wait until nationalists win a referendum and then attempt to move the goalposts. That would be neither practical nor morally sound.

    But I do feel that deciding Northern Ireland’s future on the basis of “winner-takes-all” is somewhat unfair, and a recipe for instability if the province becomes evenly divided between the two communities.

    “Winner takes all” is also not necessarily in the best interests of unionism, as they may not always be the majority. And it is inconsistent the historic rationale of Ulster unionism, which is that it is unfair to decide the future of Ireland as a whole on a crude majoritarian basis; better to partition the island than allow a nationalist majority to govern.

  • david thorpe 16th Jun '10 - 2:45pm


    your post and quotation from the gfa MAKES THE POINT i HAVE BEEN trying to make on this thread.

    the secretary of state has it at his discrretion, that could be a tricky balance in future

  • david thorpe 16th Jun '10 - 2:52pm

    “@ sesenco

    as has alreday been pointed out by people other than myself on this thread, the nationalist popualtion is rising, and religion is irrelelvant many of the people who espouse no relion are of course in favour of a united ireland as Im sure many are not.
    I have met many pira members who are aetheists, there is somewhat more religousity among pira/psf members than among members of the other paramilitary groups.

    and many ‘IRA supporters are catholic and want a catolic united ireland they come form a different traditon to the one from which PIRA emereged, and largely anre influential in PIRA

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jun '10 - 10:31am


    I am well aware that neither Sinn Fein nor the IRA make mention of religion in promotional material. Although the situation in Northern Ireland is often categorised as “Catholics v. Protestants”, yes, I know it has never been the claim of Sinn Fein or the IRA to be fighting on behalf of Catholicism.

    The community from whom Sinn Fein and the IRA draw their support, however, is one which is Catholic in religious culture and at least until recently overwhelmingly practiced that religion. The conflict in part derives from that religion being persecuted in the past, and from the fervour of the Irish nevertheless to keep on practicing it, and for it therefore to become a badge of their resistance to incorporation into British rule.

    Catholicism in Ireland was therefore in a somewhat different position from elsewhere in Europe. In most other places, it was either the religion of the establishment, or the establishment had converted to Protestantism and Catholicism had disappeared. This has the good effect that Catholicism was not as elsewhere mixed up with defending the wealth and privilege of the rulers. It did, however, generate a somewhat puritanical attitude, something which is not uncommon in underground resistance movements. Also, of course, in an underground Church there is no room for the finer points of theological thinking or aesthetics. Much of this has also been inherited in the Catholic Church in England, given that it was until a few decades ago largely the Irish immigrant community at prayer. Hence the brutal right/wrong approach to morals, sloppy gabbled services in ugly churches. This is what you get when mass had to be said on a rock in the open air with look-outs for the soldiers coming to break it up. To this day, they are looking at their watches if mass goes on much over half an hour.

    Having been brought up a Catholic in England, though unusually not of Irish or even any other non-British background, part of my understanding of the religion has been gradually extracting out those aspects of it which are Irish Catholicism and not universal Catholicism. One may note, for example, very much less of the puritanical attitude in southern European Catholicism.

    My point now is that seeing as Sinn Fein and the IRA are often, though wrongly, categorised as fighting for Catholicism, I do feel the need to oppose them even more due to being of the religion and to stand firmly and say they have nothing to do with my religion. Although they have nothing to do with it, it remains the case that many of those who support them, or are active in them, do practice the outward signs of Catholicism and may think they are good Catholics.

    Having studied this, the history of the Northern Irish conflict, and the Catholic Church’s teaching on “just war”, my own view is that anyone who supported the IRA during the recent troubles, and by “support” I include voting for Sinn Fein, is guilty of what the Catholic Church calls “mortal sin”. This is only my own opinion, but I cannot interpret the teaching of the Catholic Church in any other way. I fear that those Irish Catholics who do so are placing some false god of “Irish nationalism” before true Catholicism.

    To me, sorting this out and expressing repentance for it is just as important as sorting out the child abuse and expressing repentance for that. It is the teaching of our Church that we shall be personally judged by what we do, we cannot use others as an excuse.

    I tend to take a lot of it as allegorical, but Northern Irish Catholics who have supported Sinn Fein will know what I mean by “mortal sin” and what the traditional view is of those who die in a state of mortal sin without having repented of it. This just my personal view, but being if that religion myself I feel I do need to share it. I suspect I would feel similar if I were a Muslim faced with Islamic terrorism, though the analogy is not complete, because Islamic terrorism claims explicitly to be based on religion.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Jeff
    Marco 12th Apr '24 - 10:01pm: The right wing media dont bother to defend Brexit anymore... As someone who reads across the political spectrum ...
  • Katharine Pindar
    What a refreshing discussion started by William, warning but also encouraging us. I think we can go strong on climate change policies, as you suggest, William -...
  • Simon McGrath
    “ Technically speaking, Israel is a democracy” Well yes. Alas Israeli’s have elected a dreadful government but the key is they elected them. And yes it...
  • David Allen
    Chris Moore, I'll be delighted if the party can prove me wrong!...
  • Chris Moore
    @David Allen: Paul Marshall is long gone from the party. Social Liberalism is the dominant current of thinking . You'd need to back up your slightly cyni...