Time to jettison the straitjacket of ‘two traditions’?

Published in Editorial, Issue 6 (November/December 2022), Volume 30

editorAs we enter the home stretch of the ‘decade of centenaries’, another anniversary heaves in sight—the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next year. It will hardly be a celebration. At the time of writing we still don’t have a functioning power-sharing executive, and that’s been the norm for all but two of the last six years. Moreover, the fundamental paradox of the agreement remains—that the sectarian divisions it seeks to overcome are institutionalised in the agreement itself.

Consequently, perhaps it’s time to recognise that the system of ‘cross-community votes’ and ‘petitions of concern’, with parties designated either ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’, is no longer fit for purpose, particularly in the light of the ongoing diversification of Northern Irish society, reflected in the 2021 census figures for ‘national identity’—31.9% ‘British only’, 29.1% ‘Irish only’, 19.8% ‘Northern Irish only’, with the remaining 19.2% a combination of ‘British’, ‘Irish’ or ‘Northern Irish’, or none. Yet in the face of these realities the DUP (no longer the largest party in the Assembly) continues to delude itself that it speaks on behalf of Northern Ireland generally, first in support of Brexit (which only 44.2% of the NI electorate supported), then in opposition to its consequence, the protocol (which a majority of Assembly members support), although of late their argument seems to have dwindled to the claim that ‘no unionist party supports the protocol’. How small does this tail have to get before it stops wagging the dog?

While on these figures a border poll delivering Irish unity is not imminent, the revelation that those of a Catholic background now make up a majority—albeit slim, 2.22%—is nevertheless seismic. The purpose of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which partitioned the country against the democratically expressed wishes of the Irish people, was to manufacture a two-to-one unionist majority within the six counties of Northern Ireland. If that was the logic of its doing, surely it is reasonable to speculate that the loss of that majority will in time be its undoing?

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