The two communities in the north, however deeply divided by religion, share an outlook on life which is different from that prevailing in the south and which bears the stamp of a common heritage. E. Estyn Evans, The Personality of Ireland.
Like that of many other nations, Ulster’s border, territory and population has dramatically shifted and changed over the centuries. The current Northern Ireland state was established by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. Consisting of six counties — Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone — its population of one and a half million inhabits an area of some 5,237 square miles. Prior to this Ulster included counties Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan; however, our national territory at times has stretched as far south as the Boyne valley.
Given our bloody history, one can hardly ignore the fact that territory — and our population’s religious composition — is the core issue to many folk. So what about our independent Ulster — where will its border be? Would its territory reflect exactly that of Northern Ireland — or would it perhaps be nearer that of the nine county “historic” Ulster. Or maybe something in between? And what would be its religious make-up?
This has already been a matter of some debate in Ulster Nation. Open Forum in UN.20 noted that an independent Ulster might not include areas like Crossmaglen. In the letters page of UN.21, one Donegal-based reader wanted the county to be included in a new Ulster whilst another reader thought that we couldn’t “hold” South Armagh. Our Ulster Nation website guest-book includes several letters concerning national territory.
One problem for Ulster-nationalists is that this view of “our” and “their” areas is deeply ingrained in many of our folk — both Protestant and Catholic. It has its sad roots in various doomsday trends of thought which puts all Catholics in the IRA, and brands all Protestant as reactionary orange unionists. Some Protestants feel that because the inhabitants of areas like South Armagh are perceived almost wholly to be in support of Republicanism, they should be abandoned to the Republic. An Ulster-nationalist has to ask — with this trend of thought just where do you stop? Once South Armagh is lost do we abandon all areas west of the Foyle, parts of West Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Down? Would West Belfast become part of the Republic — just as West Berlin was part of, yet isolated from, the old West Germany during the Cold War?
If we were to follow the Protestant doomsday scenario and abandon all predominantly Catholic territory, we’d be left with County Antrim and most of Counties Londonderry and Down as well as the north of County Armagh…. but for how long? Such a land would be very small, possibly unworkable and unstable. The whole notion of getting rid of Catholic areas in any case stinks of some sort of fanatical ultra-Protestant version of a wholly Protestant state. Independence is not about establishing a Protestant state for a Protestant people, but should bring about a state for all of our people together under a common agreed and unifying identity. Independence should be about reconciling our long-suffering people — making us all realise that we have more in common with one another than with those to whom we currently claim allegiance — the British and the Irish states. An independent Ulster should be about ending British/Irish, Catholic/Protestant and unionist/nationalist division in our land. This is our vision, our dream, of an independent Ulster. But could it come about? Surely our population is made up of two warring monoliths — Protestant unionism and Catholic republicanism?
So is there any evidence to support a third way; a political identity that views itself as neither British nor Irish? John Darby’s book, Scorpions in a Bottle*, provides us with some revealing statistics which give us hope for a better future. A survey showed that between 1989 and 1994 some 26% to 29% of Protestants were given to describing their identity in terms of “Ulster or Northern Irish” as opposed to the old conventional “British”. Similarly, between 25% and 28% of Catholics described their identity as “Northern Irish” rather than “Irish”. These findings suggest that there is indeed more than just two religions, two identities, two traditions and two communities here.
There is a third identity, and that identity is the non-divisive NI/Ulster identity itself. Approximately one quarter of our population positively identify themselves as NI/Ulster rather than with conflicting British and Irish labels. This can surely transcend the religious divide in our land — a feat which British or Irish identities cannot ever realistically achieve.
Such views very much need to be taken into account, but regrettably they are disenfranchised as there is (as yet) no mass movement representing their aspirations. Vested interests can therefore perpetuate the myth that there are only two identities in our homeland. Radical Ulster-nationalists need to work hard to articulate the views of this group of people; ideas which cannot be said or seen to favour Protestants over Catholics or Catholics over Protestants. They threaten no-one. We seek to unite the vast majority of our people to pledge allegiance to a new Ulster; a new loyalty — not to Leinster House nor to Westminster, but to the Ulster nation itself and the institutions of a new agreed Ulster six-county state. Unionists forget that the Empire is gone and the Union is no more — the Scots and Welsh get their respective parliament and assembly this year. Unreconstructed Fenians like Republican Sinn Féin could never peacefully drag an unwilling Protestant population into their utopian Éire Nua. Ulster independence is our best hope for uniting our people, leaving past differences behind us and taking us all forward into a new future where all our people can feel at ease with one another, our identity and the institutions and symbols of the new state.
* Scorpions in a Bottle
by John Darby (Chairman, Ethnic Studies, University of Ulster).
Minority Rights Publications, London. ISBN: 1-873194-16-1. £11.95
(statistics from Social Attitudes Survey, compiled by K. Trew, 1996).