Understandably, a lot of excitement has been generated by recently released population figures showing that Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland by two per cent (45.7% Cath, 43.5% Prot, 9.3% none, with ‘other religions’ at 1.5%). The implication of all this is that a united Ireland is now within reach.
There are a number of problems with such a simplistic conclusion. The most glaring difficulty is the assumption that all Catholics are in favour of a united Ireland and that the Troubles reflected a powerful desire to both destroy the Northern state and to create a 32-county united Ireland.
My own experience, from a student at Queens when the civil rights movement began, followed by the resurgence of the IRA, up to the present day, and my near four decades covering the story as a journalist, is that that a yearning for Irish unity was not what all this signified.
Rather it was the belief that Unionism was so irretrievably committed to excluding Catholics from the exercise of power that the state they controlled was not just illegitimate but so inimical to the Nationalist community that the state they owned and controlled deserved to be destroyed. That is where the Provisional IRA’s roots lie.
The Troubles were not about creating a 32 county Irish republic as much as tearing down, or at least harming a state which Catholics felt they had good reason to detest. Aside from a minority of Nationalists it was not a yearning for Irish re-unification which drove hundreds into the ranks of the Provisional IRA but a hatred of the place which fate had chosen as their birthplace.
In this context the desire for a 32 county re-united Ireland was more an expression of the thought that since Unionism was so irreformable it deserved to be consigned to history’s dustbin. What it was not, was a yearning to rejoin separated brethren on the other side of the Border. Any Nationalist familiar with the circumstances that accompanied the creation of partition cannot but be aware of the deep resentment at the speed and lack of grace that accompanied their abandonment by the Southern state.
Just look at the history of the Irish boundary commission, circa 1924-25, and reflect upon the haste with which the infant Southern state waved farewell to the Northern minority and then, with only occasional exceptions, left them to their fate.
What this meant when the Troubles exploded was that what we went through was less a war of national liberation than an expression of anger and frustration at the refusal of the rest of Ireland, North and South, to recognise the right of Northern Nationalists to political and economic equity.
Assuming this trend begun by the peace process represents permanent change then what we can look forward to is not so much a united Ireland as a more united Northern Ireland.