by Frank Schnittger
Sat Sep 2nd, 2017 at 09:56:33 AM EST
Newton Emerson asks us to remember the Third Tribe of Ulster - one that is largely of Scottish descent, Presbyterian beliefs, and prone to dreaming of an Independent Ulster rather than one tied to either England or Ireland. Politically it is represented by the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), rather than the previously dominant and anglophile Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and holds the English (perfidious Albion) in almost as much suspicion as do Irish Nationalists, formerly represented mostly by the Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP) and now by Sinn Fein.
Historically, he certainly has a point, but there is a another more modern third tribe his analysis ignores: This third, and possibly fastest growing tribe in N. Ireland today is neither Scottish, English, nor exclusively Irish; neither Roman Catholic, Presbyterian nor Anglican. It is neither Unionist nor nationalist. It is secular, disillusioned with tribal politics, and just wants to get on with life, make a decent living, and not be bothered by all the religious and political fanatics who seek to divide and conquer.
This third tribe wants peace and prosperity, a good environment and decent public services. They are prepared to work hard and want a good future for their children so that they don't have to emigrate to London or Dublin to make a living - like so many of the most talented young people of previous generations have felt forced to do. Most send their children to third level college in Ireland or Britain, where they experience the relative freedom of not being defined by their religion, surname, school or place of residence. They want to get on well with all their neighbours, and are frustrated at continually being asked to take sides.
On the face of it, Northern Ireland politics has never been more polarised, with the DUP and Sinn Fein combined obtaining 65% of the vote in the 2017 general election - the highest total for any two leading Unionist and Nationalist parties since 1970. But despite the extreme polarisation of Northern politics turnout has never been higher than 65%. Turnout in the 2016 Assembly elections was less than 55%, and turnout in 2017 - the highest in decades - was under 65%. Some of the 35%-45% who didn't vote may have had legitimate reasons why they couldn't vote, but many simply didn't wish to engage in a process dominated by sectarian parties.
Even the Brexit referendum failed to elicit an increased turnout in Northern Ireland, with a turnout of only 62.7% (the lowest of any region of the UK) and with most of the 44% Leave vote concentrated in the DUP (and Ulster-Scots) dominated north east corner of the territory. So this third tribe, of which I speak, either didn't vote in the Brexit referendum or formed part of the 56% remain vote, suspicious of any change in the Northern Ireland status quo which has brought an uneasy peace since the Good Friday agreement of 1998.
They are now horrified that Brexit is raising all manner of ghosts they had thought were becoming dormant and re-politicising things they were increasingly taking for granted - like an open border with the south, and the maintenance of devolved government within Northern Ireland. Any ensuing instability is their worst nightmare, destroying what fragile progress has been made since the Good Friday Agreement.
They also worry that the English will tire of subventing Northern Ireland to the tune of £10 Billion per annum (roughly the same as the UK's net contribution to the EU) and wish that their more "political" neighbours would spend more of their energy making the Northern Ireland work better and less dependent on the financial support of others. They don't know what will become of them if Brexit really turns out to be as bad as many predict. Some might even wish that an Independent Northern Ireland were possible, but know it is never likely to be sustainable. Not because it isn't big enough, but because it isn't united enough. The EU provided some possibility of an alternative over-arching political identity and unity, and now that is being taken away from them.
They will not forgive the DUP for its stupidity, nor Sinn Fein for it's violence, but where can they turn to now? Some may look enviously to the economic success of the south and wish they could be part of that, if only it didn't come laden with so much political and religious baggage; if there wasn't some vague unease at a residual physical threat or fear of cultural assimilation; if there were, perhaps, some Mandela like leader who could appeal equally to all communities. But they know that too is a pipe dream. Too many people define themselves and profit by our divisions rather than by what joins us all together on this island.
There is just too much history... and not enough of a clearly defined future.