Most of the adjustments that need to be made in a new Ireland are for the purpose of accommodating Protestants from the North. They will be a large minority within the new Irish state and they will be unlike other minorities that we have previously had to accommodate or accommodate.
or will the Protestants of the North be like those who adapted to Free State and Republic life?
What distinguishes Northern Protestants is that they have a territorial basis.
They will know they will have no chance of reclaiming a place in the UK, but they will be able to assert a British identity within the new Ireland and stake out a territory as their own from which they will demand recognition and concessions be able.
Already feeling besieged, unionized populations are predominant in counties Antrim and Down, which stretch as far east as Co Derry to the north and across Lough Neagh to the south through Lurgan and Portadown.
We cannot say with certainty how large this aggrieved minority will be. Apparently some Protestants are already adapting to the notion that a united Ireland is inevitable, although they may be wrong.
Some will admit that the Union cause is lost and will accept the new Ireland as their home.
Others will respond with more or less accessibility, from retaining some symbols of their British identity to an open commitment to disrupting the new state.
The assumption that there are a million Protestants who are determined to be British may not hold true now, but assuming only half that number would choose to continue to identify as British after unification, it would still represent 10 per cent of the population of the make island.
As a group of people concentrated within definable boundaries in the Northeast, they could make their demands for recognition with some force.
They would probably still fly the union flag from public buildings.
They would have murals and the familiar painted curbs to demarcate British territory.
They would have under them thousands of young men belonging to armed loyalist paramilitary groups. According to a recent estimate by the Commission to End Paramilitarism, there are 6,000 members in just one group, the Ulster Defense Association (UDA).
If tensions had increased during preparations for a border election and unification, these numbers would likely have risen.
These people would have entered the new state wounded and angry, defeated but determined to preserve some of the “ulster” they were trying to defend.
This Ulster would by then be a cherished myth and, like the Republic of Proclamation of 1916, real in their hearts. The areas defined by Protestant Unionists as theirs would consolidate. Catholics, feeling unsafe, moved out and Protestants, feeling similarly unsafe elsewhere, moved to the British enclave.
There would then be a clear boundary between that enclave and the rest of Ireland.
Armed groups and vigilantes could patrol this border. At times of heightened tension, we might see sectarian killings near this border to drive out Catholics and free up homes for Protestant refugees from other areas.
This enclave would be characterized by an indigenous culture, favoring orange parades, paramilitary displays, and celebrations of public occasions such as anniversaries.
In most other parts of Ireland roads and streets have bilingual signs with English and Gaelic names. The Irish language will be conspicuously absent from the enclave. Travelers across the country and tourists know instantly that they are entering or exiting an area that is different from the rest of Ireland.
As a minority within the new Ireland, the pro-British Protestants will demand that the new state recognize their rights. They will refuse to fly the Irish flag. They could refuse to be monitored by An Garda Síochána and insist that a remnant of the Northern Ireland police service be retained.
If they follow the example of the Republican campaigns of 1919-20 and the recent riots, they could attack Catholic policemen or any officer in Garda uniform and force the consolidation of a Protestant force.
The Provos and Michael Collins’ IRA were each able to invalidate a police service and force military intervention within days.
By killing some Catholic police officers, loyalists could trigger a wave of resignations or calls for transfers to safer areas.
The new Ireland government is being challenged on how to respond. At the very least, it would have to arm gardaí. It could decide to aggressively suppress the new movement and try to prevent the Enclave from being maintained. Previous experience, for example with the no-go areas of Belfast and Derry in the 1970s, suggests that this can only accelerate ghettoisation.
Or the state might seek to assuage Protestant uneasiness by yielding as much as possible to whatever its demands and inviting it to play a fuller role.
The trouble with this is that where a demarcated group refuses to participate in the state and asserts itself with even the slightest force, the whole area becomes unmanageable without emergency powers, and those who resist the toughest end up having it to talk to and compromise with.
That was certainly the whole lesson of the peace process.
The IRA has always consisted of only a few hundred activists, with a larger group of people willing to collude with them to some extent. Loyalists will certainly assume that what worked for the Provos and Sinn Féin will work for them too.
Given the danger of unification creating a Protestant enclave, what could we do now to prevent this?
The first thing we should recognize is that the problem starts in Northern Ireland. This problem is the social and sectarian division. It will not be resolved by Irish unification and it will make unification more difficult if it comes about.
Before we think about uniting Ireland, we should ask how we can integrate the Protestant and Catholic communities of Belfast and Derry. Belfast is still divided by peace walls that should be dismantled by next year. There is not the slightest hope that these walls will ever fall, even in a united Ireland.
Derry has no peace walls as the division is marked by the River Foyle. Changing the Irish flag and anthem will make no more impression on loyalists and hard-line unionists than legalizing divorce and contraception, although it was then-Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald’s hope that that would be the case.
We could now be moving very quickly towards a border survey. Brexit and the current poor quality of government in England make unification appealing to more of us. As much as we want reconciliation in the North, we may not need it to get 50 percent plus one vote across the line.
But then the problems of the North will not be solved or shelved. They will have been tightened and Dublin needs to sort them out.
Malachi O’Doherty’s new book Can Ireland be One? was published by Merrion Press last week
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/what-happens-if-and-when-ulster-says-yes-41959511.html What happens if and when Ulster says yes?