Northern Ireland has been at the center of the recent Brexit debates. By insisting on a unified trade regime with the Republic that would almost certainly lead to reunification, the Europeans appear to be using the border issue as leverage over the British. Not only do patriotic Britons not want to cede control over the territory of Northern Ireland, but the current Conservative government relies on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to make up the numbers needed to sustain itself.
Brexit will come or Brexit will go. But the shifting sands in Northern Ireland that are being ignored in the political back-and-forth are here to stay.
The primary aim of the DUP is to maintain a union with Britain against the Irish nationalists, who want a 32-county republic. Historically, the unionists have justified this stance by arguing that if they were forced to join the Irish republic, they would become a Protestant minority. They fear this would result in the erosion of their cultural and political power and lead to their extinction.
These are not, and never have been, unreasonable concerns. Throughout the 20th century Ireland was a majority Catholic country. The Ulster Protestants carry with them a particularly virulent strain of Protestantism. If the two territories had been integrated between the 1920s and the 1980s, the cultural strain would have been significant. Add to this the manifest distrust—and perhaps even hatred—that the Catholic majority has for the Protestants, and it is hard not to think the Ulster Protestants’ fears well-founded.
In recent years, however, a silent realignment has been taking place—one that, so far, no one has noted. The British government in Westminster that the DUP aligns itself with has started to attack DUP supporters. Take, for example, Northern Ireland’s legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage this week. This attack on the DUP and its supporters—who are strong social conservatives—came not from the South but from Westminster.
When Theresa May first moved to form a government with the DUP in 2017, Britain turned its attention to a part of the country it had largely forgotten. Many did not like what they saw. Mainstream opinion—mainly emanating out of liberal London—was that the unionists were freakish religious throwbacks.
At the time, BBC Newsnight sent a reporter to interview young DUP supporters. The result was a ten-minute “report” painting the DUP as irrational religious bigots and homophobes. In one memorable scene, after the reporter corners a 19-year-old female DUP supporter and asks her to explain her views on same-sex marriage, the DUP supporter’s mother arrives home. She says that she feels the elite in Britain hate the DUP, the Ulster Protestants, and their culture. “Really, you feel people hate you?” responds the BBC reporter, as if she had no idea. “Well, I think that’s the reason, possibly, why you’re here,” the mother replies. It most certainly was.
While this new reality was becoming apparent to Ulster Protestants, Irish Catholics in the South saw their country turned upside-down. Same-sex marriage was legalized by popular referendum in 2015, followed by abortion in 2018. One of the biggest supporters of this new cultural politics was the nationalist party Sinn Féin.
As the Troubles settled down in the late 1990s, Sinn Féin repositioned itself as a culturally leftist party. Many young Sinn Féiners had only been children when the Peace Process was started and, although most would be loath to admit it, their political interests lay elsewhere. They absorbed the cultural leftism that had been tied up with Irish nationalism since the 1960s—the leftism of the Civil Rights marches and Marxist-inspired terrorism—and steered the party in that direction.
Where Sinn Féin in the South went, Sinn Féin in the North followed. Until then, Northern Catholics had seen Sinn Féin as a Catholic party. But this was clearly no longer the case. So many began to see that their true political interests—in a strange historical turn of fate—lay with the DUP.
In early October of this year, Lisa O’Hare, the Catholic captain of the Tyrone Gaelic games team, announced that she would back the DUP over Sinn Féin because the former opposed abortion. “As an Irish Catholic who places God at the centre of my home and my heart we don't have anyone who represents our views,” she told the BBC.
The logic of history dictates that this will not prove to be an anomaly. The conflict between Irish Catholic and Ulster Protestant was a real one. It was not just about ethnic squabbles—although that was a component—but always about religious sectarianism. Yet in the new world, where both British and Irish have largely apostatized from Protestantism and Catholicism, the differences between these two groups look far smaller than do the differences between the religious and the assertive secularists. Would the BBC reporter really have been able to tell the difference between the DUP supporter she interviewed and a committed Irish Catholic? Given that the questions she asked all concerned same-sex marriage, it is safe to say that she would not.
In a world where the cultural battle lines are drawn not between the sects but between Christians and secularists, it seems inevitable that Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants will soon see that they have more in common with each other than with their non-religious countrymen. What will emerge from that recognition is anyone’s guess—but emerge it will.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.