Young Catholics and Protestants may reshape the nature of Northern Irish politics

Belfast City Hall, Northern Ireland.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Issues relating to Northern Ireland are set once more to impact on the political consciousness of the UK. Following last week's Northern Ireland Assembly elections, Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill is entitled to become first minister, since Sinn Féin is now the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The most disunited part of the United Kingdom

However, things are rarely simple in Northern Ireland and DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has made it clear that he will not nominate ministers unless concerns about Brexit trading arrangements are resolved. This is a major problem because there can be no governing executive without the DUP's support as it is (now) the second largest party in the Assembly.

The issue at stake is that the DUP – which supported Brexit – is deeply unhappy about the 'Northern Ireland Protocol.' The recent Assembly election was held three months after the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed due to the resignation of the (then) First Minister, Paul Givan (from the DUP). He did so in protest against the Protocol.

The Protocol is the part of the Brexit deal with the EU which keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the EU's single market regarding movement of goods. It was designed to ensure free trade across an open Irish border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. This is a key issue arising from the Good Friday Agreement. The imposition of a hard border within the island of Ireland would seriously undermine that and could cause a resurgence in the sectarian violence that the Good Friday Agreement was designed to end.

The UK signed up to that agreement and nobody wants to see a return to 'the Troubles.' The creation of such a hard border would be totally unacceptable to the nationalist community in Northern Ireland (represented by Sinn Féin) and would break the Good Friday Agreement.

The problem is that the Protocol, while easing the situation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, has – consequently – set up new trade checks for the movement of goods between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. That is unacceptable to many within the unionist community in Northern Ireland, who will not accept any procedures which treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

This conundrum was predictable and hard-wired into the nature of Brexit, which ended free movement between the EU and the UK; but the latter includes a volatile part of its territory where peace is dependent on the absence of a hard border with the Irish Republic (which remains a member of the EU). I recall discussing this in 2016 but noted then that the subject seemed of little interest to many people in mainland Britain when deciding their position on Brexit.

The short distance of sea which separates Northern Ireland from the mainland, acts as something of a 'mental firewall' for many in the latter. However, I am old enough to remember that the 'mental firewall' was incapable of insulating mainland Britain from the violence that bloodily divided Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Agreement. I recall seeing a department store in Bristol devastated by an IRA bomb and the main street in my West Country town shut as the army bomb disposal dealt with a briefcase left at the post office. The briefcase did not contain a bomb, but the fear was real.

A history of suffering

For some years I taught an A-Level module on Irish history in which we explored how the deeply troubled history of English (and then British) rule in Ireland eventually led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which concluded the Irish War of Independence (1919–21) and redrew the map of Ireland so that it was divided between the Irish Free State (which became the Irish Republic in 1937) and Northern Ireland (which remained part of the UK). In that decision, the Protestant minority in Ireland became the Protestant majority in the newly formed 'Northern Ireland.' The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland became a discriminated-against community, who would eventually push back against this status and their community's poverty in the 1960s.

The inter-communal violence ('the Troubles'), which surged in the 1960s, lasted until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In that period, while there are variations in the published data, about 3,600 people were killed and over 40,000 wounded. In addition to the members of the British security forces and members of rival paramilitary groups who died, over 1,800 were unarmed civilians.

Most of these murdered civilians were Catholics, a statistic which may come as a surprise to many in mainland Britain where the news tended to focus more on the terrible carnage as it impacted on the security forces and republican atrocities generally. The murder of Catholic civilians by Protestant paramilitaries gained much less news coverage. For example, phoning for a taxi (which operated from a Catholic neighbourhood), in order to murder its Catholic driver, was a frequent occurrence.

In this situation, the reality of contrasting faith positions was deeply entangled with political, and 'tribal,' identities and a complex and turbulent history. There is a story told of the owner of an Indian restaurant who was stopped at a paramilitary roadblock in the 1970s and his answer demanded to the question "Protestant or Catholic?". It was a life-or-death moment. When he answered "Hindu," there was a moment of consternation among the gunmen. Then they demanded: "Yes, but are you Protestant Hindu or Catholic Hindu?" Pick your tribe.

All in all, it was a terrible time and those who are quick to dismiss the current – post-Brexit – arrangements, untidy as they are, would do well to ponder on what the Good Friday Agreement was designed to prevent happening again. And they will need to work hard at being creative in framing their alternatives to the current situation. The reestablishment of a hard border within Ireland would likely be a routeway to the violence of the past.

Signs of the times?

Whatever we feel about Brexit and the Protocol, there is something else going on in Northern Ireland, which may alter the future course of events there. While attention this week will focus on the tussle between Sinn Féin and the DUP, it should be noted that the third party in the Assembly is now the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), or simply Alliance. This is significant because Alliance, in its present form, represents a liberal and non-sectarian approach to politics, in contrast to the binary political choice of unionist/Protestant or nationalist/Catholic. Last week it took 13.5% of the vote cast (an increase of about 4.5% on its previous performance) and more than doubled the eight seats it had achieved five years ago.

This is part of a significant trend. In the run-up to last week's elections, several commentators noted a growing number of younger people, in their twenties or thirties, who were expressing distrust of the binary choices that have shaped Northern Irish politics and culture for decades.

This growing push-back against sectarian politics is in line with the findings of the 'Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2020.' This survey revealed that 49% of people aged 18–24 define themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. In addition, this group was also less likely to identify as 'British' than older people in the province. The survey found that only 14% did so, compared to 46% of the over-65s. In the same survey, around a third of the young people polled described themselves as 'Northern Irish'; a third identified themselves as 'Irish'.

More recently, research from the 'Northern Ireland Youth Forum' indicates that young people have a different set of priorities to those that influence the thinking of many older people. Its interim report reveals that what concerns young people most is climate change, mental health, education, and human rights. Only 7% cited Brexit as a significant issue to them; and the same low percentage cited the legacy of 'the Troubles' as a significant matter. Equally revealing was the finding that 96% said they were comfortable with the identity and culture of others.

Clearly, these young people have no wish to impose their personal identity onto other people, or make them conform to a preconceived model. They are more inclined to let others make their own choices and are more comfortable living in a diverse community than many in an older age cohort. That would seem to be true across the UK and is not just a Northern Irish phenomenon.

What next?

The changes that have made Sinn Féin the largest party in the Assembly fall short of the kinds of numbers that would trigger a 'Border Poll' (and Irish reunification) – feared by most unionists – any time soon. However, many commentators feel that the overall demographic trajectory points that way in the not-too-distant future. The number of young people who no longer identify as 'British' would suggest that this is not a fanciful suggestion.

More significant perhaps is the movement of the young away from sectarian politics. This suggests that a generational shift is occurring, in which many young people in Northern Ireland no longer decide their politics based on a 'Protestant' or a 'Catholic' identity. In some ways this reflects a growing secularisation in society. But before believers throw up their hands in horror at this, they should recall how politicised faith has scarred this area of the British Isles.

Whatever happens over the next few days and weeks, and however the arguments over the Northern Irish Protocol play out, the trajectory of history seems to be shifting in Northern Ireland and the young appear to be pointing towards the kind of direction that things might take.

In 2022 over 40,000 young people became eligible to vote in Northern Ireland for the first time. Over the next few years that number will continue to expand. In Northern Ireland, as in the UK generally, if the young become committed voters, they have the potential to change the way that politics and national identity have been defined by an older generation.

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As the author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio news exploring the interaction of faith and politics; appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA; and recently has been interviewed regarding the war in Ukraine, including its religious dimensions. His most recent books include: The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). He has just completed Apocalyptic Politics (2022 forthcoming), which examines apocalyptic beliefs driving political radicalization across global cultures.