The Greening of Ulster

The North is discovering its Irish soul

| July-August 1996

The two Irish Republican Army bombs that ripped through the heart of London in February may have shattered the delicate cease-fire and cast the two-year peace process into limbo, but they have done little to slow a seemingly inexorable pull toward a united Ireland. Beneath the surface, encouraging trends are percolating, causing a few commentators to suggest that some sort of solution may eventually be devised—even though the historical intransigence of the warring parties seems as strong as ever.

Though Britain is loathe to say so, it “may have arrived at the conclusion that a gradual transition to a united Ireland is desirable,” writes Gavin Evans in the New Internationalist (Dec 1995). Similarly, observes Sean Cahill in Radical America (July 1995), the IRA has noticeably softened its own line. Republicans speak increasingly of an “agreed Ireland” (as opposed to a “united Ireland”), implicitly acknowledging that the Protestant majority in the North must be politically persuaded, rather than militarily coerced, into switching its allegiance.

Political analyst Richard Todd, meanwhile, sees signs that Northern Ireland’s Protestants—known as Unionists because they want to sustain the union with Britain—are slowly coming to terms with their own Irishness. Writing in Civilization (Jan-Feb 1996), Todd asserts that many Protestants are now “staking a claim in the culture of the island they actually inhabit, rather than the one that governs them.” A few are even studying the native Irish language, which, he notes, “in this century, has been the symbolic property of nationalists.”

Todd quotes an Irish-language revivalist who thinks that more and more Protestants are deciding that “it’s possible to be politically British but culturally Irish.” The peace process is facilitating this shift in identity, Todd believes, drawing wavering Unionists “nearer and nearer to their reluctant home.”



Even if nothing else transpires, the North’s 700,000 Catholics may ultimately outbreed the country’s nearly 1 million Protestants, thereby altering the democratic equation within the six British-ruled counties. And the process of integrating into the European economic community in the coming years should gradually render Northern Ireland—and its age-old conflict—an anachronism. As Evans notes in the New Internationalist, “in the long term the economics of the island and the changing demographics of its northern corner seem to make a certainty of the eventual transition to single nationhood, albeit with provision for a high level of regional and religious autonomy.”

At present, however, there’s no hint of consensus on how to get from here to there. While many Northern Irish yearn for some “third way” transcending both Unionism and nationalism, Todd concedes that “what that way is politically no one seems to know.” Altered cultural attitudes notwithstanding, Northern Ireland’s Protestants remain firmly Unionist in their self-identification. Evans expresses hope that a Protestant equivalent of South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk will one day lead his constituents to an acceptance of Irish unification, but such a figure is nowhere on the horizon.