Tensions between unionists and nationalists are likely to worsenby David McKittrick / July 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
Arlene Foster, the unionist First Minister of Northern Ireland, urged her supporters to vote to “Leave” the European Union. Yet she has conveyed no sense of celebration when Brexit became a reality. Instead, she went on television to solemnly intone: “People should not panic.” She insisted that far from facing dangers to the United Kingdom, “We are now entering a new era of an even stronger UK.”
Given the turmoil produced by the result, her supporters could be forgiven for wondering how she could display such certainty. While there are no signs of actual panic in Belfast, the result is causing much concern. In particular, it has stoked the old anxieties of unionists whose primary political purpose is to preserve the link with Britain.
With the formidable Nicola Sturgeon manoeuvring in the direction of Scottish independence, the unionist nightmare is the disintegration of the UK. Where, they worry, would that leave Northern Ireland?
Unionist history and politics emphasise their British identity, stressing the fact that many of their ancestors were immigrants from Scotland. Today many proudly describe themselves as Ulster-Scots. They brought with them a frontier mentality with an ingrained sense of insecurity. Unionists have already been made uneasy in recent decades by a steady growth in the Catholic—and therefore nationalist—population, as well as by a brain drain of Protestant students who go to study in Scotland and England and do not return.
With Sinn Fein now in government in Belfast the general unionist sense is one of Catholic gain and corresponding Protestant loss. Yet Brexit has appalled nationalists as well as unionists, one Sinn Fein leader admitting that many republicans felt “devastated and scared.”
Nationalists have made much progress in recent decades, winning a guaranteed place in government and benefiting from the disappearance of almost all their previous disadvantages in employment and housing. The number of Catholics has risen steadily, as has their social and economic profile. Britain has meanwhile has consistently shown respect for their Irish identity, resulting in a growing Catholic contentment with life within the UK.
Since the 1970s, nationalists north and south have also come to place great value on their links with Europe, which they have embraced as a auxiliary addition to their identity. The desire…