In July 1996, I climbed onto my muddy pony in our small farm in County Armagh and headed down the road. It was a rare sunny and warm day in Northern Ireland. I didn’t get far before I was blocked by a large tree that had been felled over my path. A farmer living nearby had taken his chainsaw and cut it down, closing the rural road in protest.
That summer, men fiercely attached to unity with Britain undertook similar action across Northern Ireland, cutting down trees and forming barricades on highways. These men, belonging to the Orange Order—a society that commemorates the battlefield victories of the Protestant Dutch nobleman William of Orange over the Catholic King James II 300 years prior—had been prevented by the police and local residents for the second year running from marching with banners and bands through a predominantly Catholic neighborhood of a nearby town.
My family lived near the last ardently Protestant village before the green hills rolled south, becoming wilder and more heathered, eventually leading to Irish Republican Army strongholds that straddled the border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a separate country. The Orangemen would not dare go down there to shut roads, so they closed the roads leading to our village. That summer, I asked myself the same question I’m sure many in my Protestant community did privately: If the Orangemen were angry with Catholics, why did they block the roads in Protestant areas?
To the outside world, and the American TV cameras that arrived in Northern Ireland that summer to cover the standoff, social breakdown over the Orangemen’s march route likely seemed arcane. But in a place as acutely sectarian as Northern Ireland, everything is political—even walking down the street. Back then, the nearby town’s Catholic residents, republicans dedicated to seeing an end to British rule in Northern Ireland, would not tolerate provocative, bigoted marching bands through their neighborhood. To the Orangemen, among the more extreme Protestant unionists fiercely dedicated to maintaining Northern Ireland’s British status, the street they wanted to go through wasn’t just a street: All roads fell under the British government’s authority, and so the street in question was ‘The Queen’s Highway,’ as we heard repeatedly in angry speeches that summer. Barred from their planned march, the Orangemen hoped instead that blocking roads in Protestant areas would bring Northern Ireland to a standstill. The reality on the ground was an eerie realization of the insulation of Protestant communities, many of which are today hemmed in by their own, more radical elements.
Twice this spring, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) effectively paralyzed Northern Ireland’s devolved government by refusing to back the election of a speaker. The political deadlock risks upending a fragile, quarter-century period of relative peace. It is the latest episode in an ongoing, years-long saga of political dysfunction triggered in large part by questions over the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland. Much has been written about the machinery of Brexit, the issues regarding border checks, and the Northern Ireland protocol. In essence, to preserve peace in Northern Ireland, Britain and the European Union agreed that goods transported between Northern Ireland and the republic would not be inspected, thereby avoiding the need for border posts. The result has been that goods are checked when they move between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom—within a sovereign state. The deal has sparked dismay among unionists who argue that it erodes their ties to the U.K., while republicans oppose moves to erect new border infrastructure on the island of Ireland.
Zoom out from the noise of the latest disagreements, however, and the truth is that unionist disruption will one day have to bow to the inevitable: Irish unity. It’s time for Northern Ireland’s Protestants—the community I grew up in—to talk about it. To prepare, even, for life in a united Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s very formation a century ago was the result of gerrymandering. As predominantly Catholic Ireland was granted independence from British rule, anxious Protestants living on the north of the island demanded guarantees that they would never be abandoned by London. As such, Catholic-majority counties were sliced off the province of Ulster to create a Protestant-majority entity: Northern Ireland. Local voting was switched from proportional representation to a first-past-the-post system, and voting districts were drawn such that Protestants were confident of future rule.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that essentially brought an end to the Troubles calls for a referendum, or “border poll,” on Northern Ireland seceding from the U.K. and becoming a part of a united Irish state. London’s representative to Northern Ireland would make the call on when the time is right, and a popular vote would be held in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But demographic change in Northern Ireland since its creation in 1921 means that Protestant domination is no longer guaranteed: Catholics, most of whom identify as republican, have increased in numbers compared with largely unionist Protestants. If a border poll were held today, given recent survey results, a majority of people in Northern Ireland might—by a tiny margin—vote for a united Ireland.
May elections brought, for the first time, an Irish nationalist party to the head of Northern Ireland’s government, with Sinn Fein—the former political wing of the IRA—taking the most number of seats. Effectively, the presumptive first minister of Northern Ireland’s government does not believe that Northern Ireland should exist. Sinn Fein has vowed to push for the border poll.
How unionists respond to these developments in the coming months and years will be crucial. The Protestant community cannot in good faith defy the wishes of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland, should they demand a border poll, and then vote for reunification. In 2022 and beyond, few arguments for enforced rule against the wishes of the people could stand ethical examination, or indeed the legal requirements of the Good Friday Agreement.
Protestants should instead look toward life in Ireland as a religious minority, prepare for it, accept it. The prospect is something few have openly discussed, but that discussion needs to become a dominant part of our community’s political and social conversation if we are to avoid the bloodiest transition toward the inevitable.
There is much less to be anxious about these days. Ireland has undergone a remarkable evolution, and is today a more religiously diverse, culturally open, and socially progressive place than in years and decades past. Fears over being discriminated against by powerful civic organizations run by the Catholic Church, for example, or facing bias when applying for jobs and leadership positions are less justified. If anything, for younger, outward-looking Protestants, a united Ireland—happily part of the European Union—offers a brighter future than the U.K. does.
The Catholic Church’s control over many elements of life, including schools, hospitals, and social welfare, has been drastically scaled back. Scandals over pedophilia by priests and subsequent cover-ups have reduced its power across Ireland. The country has evolved into one of the most pluralist and liberal democracies in the world. Few examples attest to this more clearly than its 2015 popular vote in favor of gay marriage, and then a vote to legalize abortion in 2018. Ireland scored 97 percent in this year’s global freedom report on civil and democratic rights by Freedom House. Being a religious minority in Ireland would be preferable to almost anywhere else on Earth.
Northern Ireland’s Protestant community is not unified, and the divisions that began during the 1990s’ peace process have deepened into a schism that will show itself more bitter in the coming years, as the prospect of Irish unity grows more tangible. Moderate unionists, those who would prefer to stay within the U.K. and who view themselves as British, prioritize functioning local government and working across the floor with republican counterparts to provide services for their community and reduce violence. They are the legacy of the David Trimble and John Hume unity that brought peace to Northern Ireland, a feat recognized by the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. These Protestants, among whom I count myself, will surely mourn the eventual loss of their British identity but reject the fighting talk and obfuscation of the DUP and other more extreme groups. An increased vote share for the cross-community, progressive Alliance Party, much of which came from traditionally unionist voters, shows this most clearly. Young Protestants care about gay rights, economic access to Europe, the environment, and functioning government as much as their national identity.
Yet for people on the most extreme end of Protestant unionism, their very cultural basis rests not on the Protestant faith, Ulster Scots culture, or British nationalism but on Protestant dominion over Catholics. Each change since the peace process of the 1990s has felt to them like a painful capitulation. The early release from jail of IRA prisoners convicted of murdering members of the security forces was especially traumatic, while other reforms have chipped away at institutions that Catholics felt unjustly marginalized them, such as the police force. All of these shifts have served as regular reminders that one of the last corners of the British empire was never realistically going to be able to remain what it was designed to be—British- and Protestant-dominated.
The Orange Order of Northern Ireland was never about celebrating the Protestant faith, or our Scottish roots. It was about celebrating Protestant victories over Catholics. As time has passed, those attitudes are dying out. Orange meeting halls across Northern Ireland these days struggle to attract young recruits, hosting instead old men whose grandsons are more concerned with day-to-day life than commemorating bygone religious victories. Peppered across Northern Ireland’s rural communities, Orange halls, looking like little churches, are rusting, tall grass growing up around them. Membership has cratered.
The legacy these more radical elements of Protestant politics in Northern Ireland have left their younger generation is not a safeguarding of the union with Britain, but rather a noisy minority, spoiling for a fight and making the inevitable Irish unification more likely to be violent and painful. As momentum toward Irish unity gains pace, it’s time for them to get out of the way and let a younger generation of modern, moderate, democratic Protestants embrace their future within a new Ireland. Failing to do so would make as much sense as chopping down Protestant trees.