A seagull flies in front of a mural which shows a group of men, led by then-Fr. Edward Daly, right, carrying the body of shooting victim Jackie Duddy during 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland, one of the most infamous days in Northern Ireland’s “The Troubles.” CNS photo/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters

Irish unity: will dream come true?

  • October 20, 2022

The historic emergence of a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland will be a significant, though not the decisive, factor in achieving a reunited country, says a Belfast MP visiting Canada.

“Taken in isolation, perhaps not because nobody should attach voting preference (to) religion. But taken in the context of multiple indications of change that are all around us in Ireland, it’s another signpost that we are living in changed — and changing — times,” Belfast North MP John Finucane told The Catholic Register. “The demographic shift in Ireland, especially in the North, is incredibly significant.”

Finucane was in Toronto and Ottawa in mid-October on a visit sponsored by Canada’s Friends of Sinn Féin to brief various groups on the political shifts occurring across Northern Ireland. On Tuesday, he met with a group of MPs on Parliament Hill.

At a press conference in Ottawa, Finucane elaborated further on the demographic and other changes and how that might affect the debate over unifying Ireland.

Acknowledging that many in Ireland are no longer practising Catholics, he said people now are more aware of their European rather than religious identity, and more concerned about the practical impact of leaving the European Union on their daily lives.

Asked if there was a fear among Protestants that a unified Ireland would place them under Catholic domination, Finucane said: “I won’t say nobody has that fear, but the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is all about human rights and being treated as equal citizens in a free, democratic country.”

“I am here to ask Canadians for your support and for the support of your elected representatives for a united Ireland,” he said.  “Canada is a country that has invested so much in Ireland in terms of bringing justice to the Irish people.”

Finucane challenged the UK government to abide by the terms of the 1998 GFA that brought an end to almost 30 years of the violence known as The Troubles. He pleaded with the Canadian government to support his position.

“The UK government considers the Good Friday Agreement an inconvenient truth, but we need to respect, cherish and celebrate (it as) a peaceful path to constitutional amendment in Ireland,” he said.

His visit comes in the wake of 2021 census data released last month showing that 45.7 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population is Catholic or from a Catholic background while 43.8 per cent are from Protestant or other Christian backgrounds. It’s the first time since the partition of Ireland a century ago that Catholics have constituted a majority. Only a decade ago, Northern Ireland was still 48-per-cent Protestant.

Finucane, whose father was a Falls Road working class Catholic civil rights campaigner assassinated by unionist killers and whose mother was a Protestant from “the leafy suburbs” of East Belfast, said the rise of the Catholic population is particularly meaningful because Northern Ireland was formed from six counties of Ulster in 1920-21 to exclude Catholics from majority status and political power. James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, declared its government a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.”

The 42-year-old former Lord Mayor of Belfast pointed out such Protestant political dominance ended forever last May. Sinn Féin won the largest number of seats in elections for the Stormont Assembly for the first time ever, and the nationalist party’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill was nominated as First Minister. His own election to the British parliament in Westminster was also the first time a Republican had won the seat in North Belfast, he said.

“It’s the first time a non-Unionist has held (the seat), let alone a Republican,” he said. “It’s the first time Unionism has been returned to Westminster in a minority (from the) North. I say that with no sense of triumphalism. I just present it as a fact. And the fact is there are those (in Northern Ireland) who are looking around and see no connection to a Westminster government tearing itself to pieces, that is chaotic on the domestic and international stages, and realize they have the option for something better.”

But Finucane stressed Unionist-Protestant political demise and Catholic-nationalist demographic rise must be placed in the “broader context” of a Northern Ireland that is already benefitting from the post-Brexit Protocol that allows it to remain in both the European Union and economically linked to Great Britain.

“We are the envy of so many other places because we have access to the UK internal market and also access to the European market of over 500 million people. It has already shown itself to be incredibly successful for businesses that have capitalized on that (access).”

Finucane is cautious about any quick holding of a so-called border poll to test the desire of citizens in both North and South to reunite the island into a single country. Time must be taken, he says, to engage the debate and let people make up their minds about the benefits and challenges.

But he gives short shrift to the claim the Republic of Ireland sees itself as the net loser in re-unification.

“There is a body of evidence from economists that says the country is much better off economically in the event of unity rather than being a small island on the world scale, with the duplication of so many different services. Why would you have two health services on an island the size of ours? Why would you have two economic bodies in competition for investment? Why would you not have one joined up tourist strategy?”

Such questions now occupy the centre of conversation and debate in both North and South, superseding the old religious and national antagonisms that split Northern Ireland for a century and fed the bloody violence of The Troubles, he says. Finucane points to the fact of his own riding of North Belfast having representatives from eight different political parties at city council as evidence of the passing of sectarian animus coloured exclusively in Catholic-nationalist green and Protestant-unionist orange.

“The Belfast I grew up in, and the Belfast that my children are now growing up in, is a very different city, and for all of the right reasons. It can be easy to paint the North and Belfast in green and orange fashion, and we do have to respect the fact there are still very strong green and orange traditions. But it is a hell of a lot more subtle, diverse and nuanced than green and orange,” Finucane said.

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