Well the Westminster election is over and the shape of the next British government is now known. We also know the strengths of the parties in the north.
For the political anorak it’s an early Christmas present. The election opens up months, even years of debate and analysis. For most citizens its importance will be in who delivers jobs and housing; peace and prosperity; and how we answer critical questions around the future of the Health Service, and the threat to other public services. In the immediate term the big question will be whether the Stormont House Agreement can finally be made to work.
These are significant challenges, especially given the very different ideological positions the parties hold. And all of this will be made more problematic given that we are only 12 months away from an Assembly election.
However, there is another underlying and formidable challenge which must also be addressed. How do we break down the sectarian barriers that have bedevilled society in this part of the island since the plantation? How do we build an inclusive community?
Some progress has been made in recent years. But sectarianism remains the greatest obstacle to political stability and equality for citizens. And how could it be otherwise.
The plantation of Ulster introduced a new dynamic into Irish society. Unlike other colonies, where colour and race where the distinctive features between the colonists and natives, in Ireland, and especially in the north, it was religion. Protestants were loyal to the union. Catholics wanted independence.
The partition of the island almost 100 years ago exasperated this problem. The northern state was forged out of a sectarian headcount. Two thirds of the population was protestant and loyal to the union; and one third was Catholic and excluded and discriminated against. Neither section where well served by partition.
In the decades since then that broad political characterization of society in this part of the island has not changed. And election results for the different parties up to now have reflected this.
But under the surface change has been and is taking place.
Last week ‘The Detail’ –an investigative news and analysis website which produces in-depth reporting on issues of public interest - published several days of articles and statistics about the north. They looked at demographics, orange marches, the Irish language and much more. It is a must read for anyone interested in developments in this part of the island.
Its focus was the future and the need for political leaders to realise that however hard some may try to avoid change that they can’t. It is happening every single day. Whether you are a unionist or a nationalist, a republican or loyalist, or none of these, political and societal transformation is taking place.
The census results in December 2012 reflect this. For the first time since partition the protestant population is less than half of the north’s population. It stands at 48%. The Catholic population is identified as 45%.
But as The Detail reveals, “census data asking people to state a current religion or religious belief, showed that an increased portion fell outside the two main blocs. A total of 17% did not state a religion or indicated they had no religion”.
The erosion of previously established certainties was further highlighted when the census figures looked at the issue of ‘national identity’. Only 40% (39.89%) of citizens in the north stated that they had a British only identity. A quarter (25.26%) stated that they had an Irish only identity and just over a fifth (20.94%) had a northern Irish only identity. That’s a long way from 1920 when some two thirds of people were unionist and British. It also reflects a growth in the number of citizens who increasingly see themselves as Irish.
The figures also reveal that 11% of the population was born outside of the north. Sectarian violence has always been a major problem but in recent years racist, homophobic and hate crime have also been on the increase.
The response of the institutions in the north has, for many reasons, been inadequate in dealing with this problem. Much more is needed to provide tough measures to defend and promote the equal rights of all citizens, including the introduction of a Bill of Rights.
In the same year as the census figures were published ‘The Detail’ released figures from the annual school census which showed that significant demographic change was taking place. In the 1,070 schools in the north 51% of the 311,559 schoolchildren were Catholic, 37% Protestant and 12 'other', which includes other Christian, non-Christian and no religion/religion unknown.
The demographic and societal changes that are taking place in the north, as well as in the rest of the island, and even across the sea to Scotland and England and Wales, mean that Irish republicans and nationalists must look afresh at how we engage with our unionist neighbours and the increasing numbers of citizens in the six counties who define themselves as northern Irish, as well as those who have consciously set themselves outside the traditional definitions of Catholic and Protestant.
For a republican party, rooted in secularism; committed to equality for every citizen; and eager to achieve a united Ireland, this is a unique and exciting opportunity. There is an onus on us who want maximum change to persuade others of its desirability.
In part it means that we must demonstrate in a tangible way our objective of building a fair and inclusive, multi-cultural and pluralist society. A society which celebrates the diversity of all our people regardless of religious persuasion, cultural identity, political affiliation, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. For example, in those Councils where Sinn Féin is the largest party we must prove by our policies and our actions that we are serious about protecting and defending the rights of citizens. In the Assembly and Executive too our words and actions must match our republican rhetoric.
Republicans have long recognised and stated publicly that change is inevitable. It is how we manage that change that will define all of us.