The Future? (Part 5 of 5)
t takes a brass neck and a boatload of optimism to predict what might occur in Ulster over the next decade. But one thing is clear: to continue the peace process and a prosperous future for the people of Ulster, sliding back into any of the historic phases outlined above would not achieve that. Republican resentment and Unionist siege mentality need to be dismantled to the point that a person’s religion or adherence to one of the many belligerent organisations that have for too long populated and dominated Ulster become irrelevant. This won’t be easy.
A good start has been made by the Alliance party, which eschews traditional divisions and has proved this capable of electing councillors, MLAs and MPs. It is clear that unionists, having seen their economic edge erode need reassurance tat the inevitable loss of their political edge will not presage disaster. Though the present British government scarcely exhibits the interest or ability to play a decisive role, the Irish government, having moved from a sulkily intransigent position a century ago is well motivated to ensure prosperity and peace across all of Ireland and that the million unionists in Ulster must feel part of that.
The factor most likely to engender a different approach is the change economic reality. Whereas a century ago, Protestant Ulster was a successful industrial component of the British Empire and Eire a comparative rural backwater, things have changed radically. In 2020, the per capita GDP in Ireland had grown to $78,600, almost 2 ½ times Ulster’s at $29,300, despite a $12.4 billion annual subsidy from a UK Treasury that would dearly like to have such fund available to stem some of there record borrowing. A reconciliation between North and South would also open Ulster up again to EU regional development funding. Just as economics once lay behind the division of Ireland, it may lie behind its reconciliation.
Unionists make much of their “Britishness” through symbols like the Union Jack. But, just as the rest of Britain wrestles with the unanswered question of what it means to be British. Is it just a geographic term for the larger island? Is there a future for it as a political term if Scotland leaves the union? What would be left for “loyalists” to be loyal to? Given all that, together with much-weakened influence of the Catholic church and the much stronger, more enlightened positions taken by the Republic, what reasons are there left for unionists to feel threatened?
Sometime in the next decade, Catholic voters in Ulster will outnumber Protestant and guaranteed power will evaporate. With the Alliance sweeping up moderate opinion, more enlightened unionists will make their peace with reality.
And then, all the Irish will have a chance to do what even those stuffy empire-loving colonial British governments of a century ago are on record as having preferred as their option: let the people of Ireland come together to plan their own future. With Protestants able to over-contribute as they always have done, but without the fear that anyone will take it away from them.