By Jack Holland
The current crisis within Unionism is yet another reminder that the underlying problem in Northern Ireland is Protestant insecurity. It always has been and as long as the state exists in anything like its present form, it always will be. That insecurity increases in direct proportion to the level of assertiveness within the nationalist community.
The internal report about the state of things within the Ulster Unionist Party, leaked two weeks ago, reveals just how serious Protestant concerns are. It predicts that within a decade, Unionists (UUP, DUP and all the other garden varieties) could find themselves in a minority within the local assembly.
"We may be grateful for mandatory power sharing," the report admits, 26 years after the party joined forces with the Rev. Ian Paisley and the Ulster Defense Association to bring down the first power-sharing government.
Nationalist assertiveness helped create the Northern Ireland state. In 1920, it expressed itself in the struggle for independence, against which Ulster Unionists rallied, and failing to convince the imperial government to stay in Ireland, accepted the compromise of partition.
Insecure, with a militant nationalism lapping at their borders, loyalists struck at vulnerable Catholics, unleashing two bloody years of sectarian violence which left hundreds dead, mainly in Belfast.
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In 1967, a rising Catholic middle-class began to assert itself, forming the civil rights movement, demanding equal treatment within the Six Counties. The result: a backlash from the likes of Paisley which led directly to the outbreak of 25 years of the worst violence Ireland has seen in the 20th century. More than 3,600 deaths later, the peace process attempted to reach an accommodation between republicanism and the North’s Protestant representatives, both Unionist and loyalist. Now that effort is once more in danger of collapse as support drains away from David Trimble toward the more hardline elements of Unionism, who, as ever, are resisting change, rallying around the cry of Paisley.
If his rallying cry has not changed in the last 30 years, it is because Protestant insecurity of which he is the most eloquent exponent has not changed. Though "respectable" Unionists shun him, when he speaks they listen. They know the strength of his appeal while rejecting his preposterous theology.
After all, Northern Ireland was created out of a piece of simple, sectarian arithmetic: counting the numbers of Prods and Teagues, then calculating how much of a majority Unionists would need to hold on to power as long as possible. The arithmetic gave them an overall majority in six of the nine counties that comprised the traditional province of Ulster. But as the leaked report warns, it will soon be time to do their sums again.
The second sign of crisis with the Protestant community last week made that clear. The West Belfast UDA issued a statement that "from 12 o’clock tonight [Tuesday, June 20], the UFF reserves the right to shoot any person seen to be attacking Protestant homes. This will be in direct contradiction to our cease-fire, which we have steadfastly adhered to despite intense provocation, but enough is enough."
The UFF (the cover name the UDA has used since 1973 to claim responsibility for its attacks) issued the threat, since rescinded, because it alleged that Protestants are being intimidated from their homes in North and West Belfast by nationalists. A report in last Wednesday’s Irish Times quoted Housing Executive statistics which showed that within the last four weeks there had indeed been 21 reported cases of intimidation in those parts of the city mentioned in the UFF statement. All of them involved Catholic families. There was not one case of a Protestant being driven out.
That is not to say there has been no such violence on both sides. But what underla the UFF warning was a deeper anxiety about the shifting demographics of Belfast. This can be seen by anyone who takes a stroll along the Lower Ormeau Road, the Grosvenor Road, the Crumlin and Oldpark Roads, and observes the Protestant churches becoming derelict, the Orange Halls that are now nationalist community centers. The expansion of the city’s Catholic population has been a fact of life in Belfast since the late 1950s. I remember when I moved into Drew Street on the Grosvenor Road in 1954 the street was 50-50 Protestant-Catholic. By 1964, it was almost entirely Catholic. By the late 1970s, the Drew Memorial Church across the road from where I lived had been abandoned as its Protestant congregation moved south to the nearby Donegall Road area or into the suburbs of North Down.
This shift in the Protestant population was not caused primarily by Nationalist intimidation — though undoubtedly the Provisional IRA’s campaign of violence played a role in spreading fear and unease. But overall the shift was rather more akin to the "white flight" phenomenon that areas of New York and other Northeastern cities experienced in the 1950s when African Americans began migrating in large numbers from the South.
It is predicted that Belfast will have a nationalist majority within the decade, if not before. UDA threats to kill Catholics will not stop the transformation of the North’s capital city.
History shows that Protestant insecurity leads to sectarian violence. It also shows that the UDA is capable of trying to do two different things at once. Shortly after the warning, Johnny Adair, regarded as one of the most militant figures within the organization and the man mainly responsible for a resurgence of UDA violence in the early 1990s, told the nationalist Belfast daily, The Irish News, that he was "doing everything in his power to prevent the organization from unleashing its gunmen against nationalists."
This is rather like Attila saying he is doing his best to hold back the Huns.
If you stick around for about 25 years, covering the Northern crisis, you will observe for yourself history repeating itself — at least once. In early 1973 I remember the then UDA leader Tommy Herron appearing on television "warning" the "young militants" of the organization to halt their sectarian campaign when he was actually, largely responsible for that campaign. At one point he even arranged to have himself "kidnapped" by the young militants in order to prove he was a "moderate" and thus avoid being interned. He succeeded.
Adair is wily enough. He has just been released from prison and has no desire to go back inside. But it is a neat trick to appear as if you are holding back the charge when you are actually leading it.