Henry McDonald: The absence of the Queen at the Northern Ireland centenary service in Armagh was spun beyond credulity

Perhaps someone among myriads of pro-united Ireland, border-poll-now lobby groups should get into a bit of birdwatching.

Saturday, 23rd October 2021, 8:00 am
Updated Saturday, 23rd October 2021, 8:58 am
President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu speaking a service to mark the centenary of partition at St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh on Thursday October 21, 2021. The Queen’s health-related absence from Thursday’s service sent nationalist commentators into hyper drive

They could send one of their members over to London armed with a pair of binoculars and a notebook to look out for ravens.

Specifically, they could position themselves outside the Tower of London and watch for any signs that the six resident ravens there might about to leave the famous castle on the north bank of the Thames. Because as the legend goes if the conspiracy of ravens eventually depart for good from the Tower then not only it but the entire kingdom will fall.

And if the ravens fly away the #Think 32 or New Ireland ‘twitchers’ will see that as somehow proof positive that the Union is now definitely doomed.

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Henry McDonald is a former Guardian and Observer Ireland correspondent and author of books including a biography of David Trimble and 'INLA: Deadly Divisions'

If you think that imagined scenario is a little bit outlandish then reflect not only on some of the wilder speculation on social media but even within the pages of a Sunday newspaper last weekend about the Union’s future. One writer speculated that when the Queen eventually dies the Union could be plunged into peril.

While across outlets like Twitter nationalist commentators and the usual trolls went into hyper drive when it was announced that the Queen would not be attending the ceremony at Armagh Cathedral to mark the 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s foundation.

Never mind that the monarch is 95-years-old and apparently in such frail health that her doctors recommended she miss the event. Following that medical advice it emerged later that the Queen had been admitted to hospital in London for tests.

None the less some in the media conjectured that the Queen’s non-attendance was in reality linked to Irish President Michael D Higgins’ boycott of the ecumenical religious service; that somehow the absence of the British monarch avoided the “embarrassment” of only having one head of state at Armagh from these islands for all those photo-ops inside and outside St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Meanwhile, on social media networks incredulity was stretched even further by those who interpreted the Queen’s non-appearance as somehow a slap in the face by the London establishment for unionists.

Like the biblical star shining in the east the monarch’s absence was seen as a sign that the Brits have started their exit strategy from Northern Ireland. Which is almost as ludicrous in terms of logic and evidence as the thesis advanced last weekend that the passing of the current monarch also heralds the break-up of the UK.

Amid all this frenzied wishful thinking it is important to return to the facts.

This type of hysteria has been fuelled by Brexit and especially the weaponisation of EU membership to advance the cause of Irish unity. However, if you analyse the results of four credible opinion polls from the year the UK voted to leave the EU it is clear there has been no real tangible “Brexit-effect” on support for staying in the UK.

The 2016 Ipsos/Mori poll taken after the Brexit vote showed support for the Union being over 60%.

A year later a survey for Queen’s University Belfast found almost exactly the same backing for the Union, again more than 60%.

Two years later in 2019 the University of Liverpool/Institute of Irish Studies also found more than 60% in favour of staying in the UK.

In 2020 the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey reported that 60% still opted for the Union rather than a united Ireland.

The reasons for this solid base support for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK it is fair to presume are not based on intangible factors such as widespread genuine admiration for the Queen or love for the monarchy.

Other far less ethereal or symbolic causes come into play here: the desire to stay in a nation with the fifth largest economy in the world; the free at point of use NHS; the support system via the Barnett Formula provided by the UK Treasury to poorer regions including Northern Ireland; a state that is multi-cultural and diverse and the deeply ingrained visceral historic, familial, social connections that straddle both sides of the Irish Sea.

Conversely the two-tier, American-style semi-privatised health system in the Republic; the Irish State’s mounting national debt, the highest in Europe; a punishing personal taxation regime and a resurgent neo-nationalism brought on in part by the decade of commemorations are among the repellent factors that will convince many to remain within the UK rather than link up with the Republic.

These are the dynamics that will determine the future of the Union rather than who sits on the throne across the water.

To posit the end of the longest reign of any British monarch could hasten the break up of the UK, or even that her non-attendance at a single event is a signal that it is already happening, is as absurd as waiting for the ravens to fly off from the Tower of London.

• Other articles by Henry McDonald below, beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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