PROTESTING unionists have no need to fear for the British link.
The findings of a major study by Queen’s University, published by this newspaper last spring, showed just 17.4 per cent of people here want a united Ireland.
Unionist politicians should use this fact and show real leadership in responding to the Union Flag controversy. They must contradict the claims of violent protestors, and reassure any unionist who fears the end of the routine flying of the Union Flag over City Hall represents an advance of a nationalist agenda towards Irish unification.
It is understandable that some unionists see the restrictions on the flying of the Union Flag as diminishing the Britishness of Northern Ireland. But they do not. Any change in the Britishness of Northern Ireland occurred when voters backed the Belfast Agreement in 1998 – recognising the right to equal expression of both British and Irish identities here if we are to live together in peace.
It is this logic which nationalists drew upon in making the case for the removal of the Union Flag from City Hall, claiming that without an Irish equivalent alongside it, their national identity was not receiving equal recognition – that they did not have the “parity of esteem” promised by the Belfast Agreement.
But unionist leaders should be loudly proclaiming the quid pro quo of this Agreement: “the principle of consent”. With this, nationalists – and indeed republicans – accepted that there could be no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position without a majority vote.
Despite republican claims, this is becoming ever less likely. Yes, the nationalist population has grown, but the Catholic birth-rate has also declined enormously, raising questions as to whether Catholics will ever outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. Even if they did, there is very little chance that a nationalist majority would vote for a united Ireland.
This is a result not only of the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger” economy, but also the outworking of the peace process, which has created a Northern Ireland in which nationalists feel far more comfortable – a Northern Ireland where they feel their Irish identity is recognised. But the same process has seen a corresponding and highly significant shift in attitudes towards Irish unification.
Last year’s Queen’s study suggested less than half of all Catholics would vote to remove the border – an all-time low, and a large decrease in support for Irish unification since the Belfast Agreement. Thus, the process of change since 1998 may mean, on issues such as flags, a less visibly British Northern Ireland, but also a quiet strengthening of the link to Britain, as ever more nationalists accept this.
The removal of the Union Flag from City Hall does not, therefore, weaken the Union itself. It does not bring any closer the possibility of a united Ireland. Rather it is a logical outworking of the Belfast Agreement. But the same process is making the Union more secure, as increasing numbers of Catholics accept the constitutional status quo.
Unionist politicians must therefore reassure their supporters that the peace process is not simply a one-way road bringing concessions only to nationalists, and indeed that on by far the most important issue, the constitutional question, unionism has and continues to prevail.
Dr Peter McLoughlin is a lecturer in politics at Queen’s University Belfast