The publication of the 2021 Census results for Northern Ireland later this year is likely to be a watershed moment. At the 2011 Census, Protestants numbered 48% and Catholics 45%. With ten years of demographic change, those numbers are likely to be reversed. In Northern Ireland primary schools, Protestant student numbers have fallen to just 37% of the total.
However, anyone who feels such a statistical shift is going to precipitate a united Ireland has not understood the deep cultural differences between those in the Twenty-Six Counties and those in the Six Counties.
I must declare an affection for Ulster people, whether they are those from the Six Counties or the Nine Counties. Unable to attend matches played by Leinster recently, I travelled to Belfast before Christmas and shall do so again this Saturday to go to Ravenhill and watch Ulster play. Anyone who has been there will know that it is a very different experience from going to Limerick or Galway to see Munster or Connacht.
The Ulster people are a different people. There is a directness, at times an almost confrontational openness, in much of what is said in the North, not because they are hostile, but because that is the custom, the way in which business is done.
Back in 1995, BBC Radio 4 ran a series called The Protestant Mind. One interviewees said that at one of the rounds of talks unionist politicians were asked about their negotiating position. They outlined their stance in plain terms. When asked about their fallback position, they had none; they had laid all their cards on the table
Transparency amongst Northern politicians, from both traditions, has often contrasted with the opacity of some of their Dublin counterparts. One prominent Dublin politician is alleged to have admitted during the peace process that what he said and what he meant weren’t necessarily the same thing. His words might have been clear, his meanings would be entirely misheard.
Not just in Dublin, but in London too, there was a habit of saying and meaning different things. John Major once claimed that the thought of talking to the IRA would turn his stomach, his claim coming at the very time that talks were taking place leading to the 1994 ceasefire.
Northern words and meanings can be misheard, because in the worldly-wise world of Dublin, we nuance what everyone says. We assume that things are said for effect, that all politicians indulge in spin. We have become cynical about public life, assuming the satirists and the cartoonists are closer to the truth than our public representatives.
A lasting settlement with the North will demand an adjustment in political culture, an adjustment that would spell the end of the clientelism of Civil War and parish pump politics.