It would seem ironic if demographics determined a united Ireland. Socialists over the decades have advanced a political strategy based on working class unity and opposition to sectarian arrangements, including partition, which has strengthened division. We have condemned a strategy based on Catholics ‘out-breeding’ Protestants.
In fact, of course, demographics is not a political strategy anyway. It will not of itself produce working class unity and remove division. It will weigh on the balance of forces, but will not determine how this balance is ultimately determined, because any referendum will not be the result of demographics but of the weight of political arguments arising out of any changed economic and social circumstances. A referendum will not just be a count but a result of a political struggle, a struggle based on political argument, interests and organisation.
Religion does not map one to one onto politics and there are Catholic unionists and Protestant nationalists, although rather fewer of the latter. Many nationalists may be described as soft and Lord Ashcroft’s poll records that ‘In our groups, many on all sides felt there was a growing number of voters, particularly younger voters, who would see a referendum in terms of practicalities rather than religion, nationality or tradition – or as one put it . . .“some will vote green or orange, but a lot of people will vote with their heads.”’
The 2021 census results will not show a Catholic majority or a Protestant one, while those defined as ‘other’ or ‘neutral’ are split two to one in favour of those from a Protestant background, who are currently more likely to favour remaining in the UK. The nationalist vote has remained at around 40% for some time and the potential for the census to show the number of Catholics exceeding Protestants will not translate into votes for a generation. The issue will sharpen well before this happens meaning that those who consider themselves soft nationalists or neutral will play a significant role in determining any majority. Hence the importance given to non-nationalist opposition to Brexit and the poll findings of people changing their minds on the constitutional question.
The poll records that ‘More than a quarter of voters (27%) said they had changed their mind on the question of whether or not Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, including 16% who said they had done so more than once.’ This seems improbable and invites some scepticism; somewhat mitigated by the elaboration that ‘31% of women, 38% of those aged 18-24 and 71% of those who describe themselves as neutral on the constitution said they had changed their minds at least once.’ A significant change of mind would currently be required to create a majority in favour of a united Ireland.
All this points to a referendum on a united Ireland not being a question of simply counting the numbers within two blocs but of a political struggle that will much more immediately set the agenda and result.
This is more obviously the case since a referendum will inevitably be required in the South and there is no doubt that this will require a political debate and struggle. One only has to recall the history of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which included that ‘The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas’, and its overwhelming popularity before it was overturned by a 94% vote because it would deliver ‘peace’. The nature of events in the North will affect voting in the South but equally the debate in the South will impact on the North.
Since socialists do not want a sectarian headcount the necessary debate on a united Ireland will be a welcome opportunity to fight for our ideas. This will include support for a united Ireland, defending its claims for democracy and ensuring, in so far as we can, that promises are delivered. At the same time we must admit that it is currently very likely that any unity will take place on a capitalist basis and will require socialists to oppose the particular form that this unity will take.
We should not fool ourselves that what will be on the agenda is anything other than the incorporation of the North into the Southern state. We should obviously oppose the importation of sectarian practices from the North into the South in the name of accommodating unionism, as covered in this post. In the meantime, we must continue to fight for the building, expansion and democratisation of the organisations of the working class and the influence upon them of militant socialist politics.
In this way we can hope that the struggle over a referendum will not involve just a count but will allow our politics to count.
Back to part 2
Forward to part 4