The political repercussions of immigration in Northern Ireland

2 Apr 2014

Northern Ireland is the most indigenous part of these islands, because its economy is weak. This in turn is mainly attributable to paramilitary violence having scared off a lot of investment over the course of the 30 year Troubles. Since the Good Friday Agreement, and the cessation of most paramilitary violence however, the Northern Irish economy has reaped a peace dividend and is now beginning to attract immigrants. The censuses of 2001 and 2011 showed that a significant but stable proportion of Northern Irish residents were born in mainland Britain (4.5%) or the Irish Republic (2%). However, an increased proportion of the population were from another EU state (from 0.6% to 2.5%), or from outside the European Union (from 1.2% to 2%). Indeed, over these 10 years the non-white population of Northern Ireland grew by 247%, though as a proportion of the general population non-whites remain a small fragment, at 1.7%. In total, 11% of Northern Ireland’s population was born outside of it. 


What impact will these groups, who are sure to grow as a proportion of the population, have on Northern Irish politics? Of course, it is not possible to determine with certainty how someone will vote or what they will think about politics simply on the basis of where they were born or their ethnicity. Indeed, contemporary Northern Ireland displays fascinating case studies of how its immigrants have engaged with politics in very different ways. On the one hand there is the non-sectarian Alliance Party’s Anna Lo, a member of the Stormont Assembly of Chinese ethnicity. On the other hand we have the Shoukri brothers, two loyalist paramilitary members of half Coptic-Egyptian descent - affectionately nicknamed ‘the Turks’ and ‘the Pakis’ by their Ulster Defence Association colleagues. This being said, it is likely that the great majority of immigrants to Northern Ireland – whether they come from elsewhere in the British Isles, Europe, or the world – will not strongly identify with either the nationalist or unionist cause. Anecdotally, from my own experience, most southern Irish people have no time for Sinn Féin, and similarly most people from the British mainland find the unionist parties something of an embarrassment. Such immigrant groups, if they decide to engage with Northern Irish politics at all, will be most likely to support the Alliance Party. At first blush, it may seem that to have a large bolus of the population that is non-partisan in the fruitless, congenital struggle of the Irish Catholics and the Ulster Protestants is a blessed relief. I am less optimistic. 

I think that having a large ‘neutral’ camp in Northern Irish politics may frustrate the goals of both the nationalist and unionist camps, and therefore destabilise the peace process. The nationalist camp, in the form of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, is rhetorically open to the idea of more immigration into Northern Ireland. This attitude is evident even in the murals one finds in West Belfast, most notably one denouncing anti-Roma prejudice, prominently positioned on the Falls Road. This point of view is perhaps a hangover of Sinn Féin’s positioning of itself, in the context of the Cold War, as a socialist, internationalist, anti-Colonial movement. However, Sinn Féin must realise sooner or later that if there is a large increase in the proportion of the population who have no particular wish for a United Ireland, then it will never achieve a United Ireland through the democratic route it has chosen. This is not to say that many of the newcomers will be fervently in favour of retaining the link with Britain, rather they will constitute a dead weight, a force of inertia for the status quo. The IRA and Sinn Féin signed up to the Good Friday Agreement because they convinced themselves of the narrative that it was only a stepping-stone to a United Ireland, rather than a final statement on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. This view was supported in part by the long-term demographic changes that took place in Northern Ireland over the late 20th century, that is, a slow but inexorable increase in the Irish Catholic proportion of the population. Republicans thought they could play the waiting game.  If the IRA and Sinn Féin see that, because of immigration, there is no prospect of a United Ireland coming about by the ballot box, many of their members may go back to the Armalite. 

The prospects for unionists are no rosier. There is a common perception that many unionists are unreconstructed racists, and I do not doubt that many of them are. In the rest of the United Kingdom, our understanding of what it means to be British has evolved enormously in recent decades. In mainland Britain, ‘British’ is a vague umbrella term. It is an artefact of multiculturalism à la Tony Blair, designed to stimulate an artificial sense of togetherness amongst our various tribes, by invoking a set of values – ‘fairness’, ’tolerance’, ‘respect’ – that have no special superlative connection to the British, any more than to Germans or Argentinians. For obvious reasons, this sort of discourse about Britishness has not been employed in Northern Ireland – there was no prospect that the British umbrella would ever be capacious enough for most Catholics - although there is technically no contradiction in being British and Irish, an Irish unionist, as one might be proudly Welsh and British. In Northern Ireland being British means, very crudely speaking, being white, supporting Rangers FC, having a picture of the Queen on the mantelpiece of your grandmother’s house, and alternating between periods in which you drink far too much and periods in which you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour. 

On the most basic political issue, of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, unionism is helped by any increase in immigration. However, as was illustrated in Susan McKay’s book ‘Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People’, even though the union with Britain is securer than ever, the unionist community feels that its identity is being eroded. This sense of being under a cultural attack is shown by the riots sparked by the decision to remove the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall - except on designated days - and the anger at the decision of the parades commission in 2013 to block the Orange Order’s return march past the nationalist Ardoyne area on the 12th of July. It is shown in smaller and more hysterical controversies, such as the demand by unionist politicians in February 2014 for the republican anthem ‘Roll of Honour’ not to be played on BBC Radio 1’s chart programme, and the claim by loyalist campaigner Willie Frazer that a character wearing a Gaelic Athletic Association sports shirt on ‘Eastenders’ was a promotion of the IRA. 

Many Westerners, since the fin de siècle and Oswald Spengler at least, have been pessimistic about their cultures’ future prospects. Their pessimism seems trivial compared with the palpable hyper-pessimism of certain sections of the unionist community, who feel that the days of their greatness are behind them, and that a United Ireland is only a matter of time. A growth in the ‘neutral’ camp will add to the paranoia of the unionist community. The Alliance Party, as it held the balance of power on Belfast City Council, had an instrumental role in the decision concerning the flying of the Union Jack over the City Hall, and showed that it has no particular interest in defending symbols of Britishness and unionist identity from nationalist incursions. 

In both communities, there are growing contingents who are becoming increasingly frustrated. The politics of Northern Ireland may be moving away from a binary, zero sum game, but it is not necessarily moving into the sunny uplands, but perhaps towards a dangerously unstable trinity, with a third camp holding the balance of power and frustrating the aims of both nationalists and unionists. 

Politics aside, I would highly recommend that you visit Northern Ireland. Its people are very hospitable and seem to share – within their own respective groups – a real sense of community that was lost quite a while ago in Britain. It has a spectacular landscape, and there are many towns and villages worth exploring. If you’re interested in conflict zones, then go and see the murals (which, understandably, the tourist board does not market). Better still it’s cheap, and only a short flight away, so take advantage -- and have a battered mars bar.

By Marcus Hunt

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