Posted By: August 23, 2013


Briege Gadd.Irish News (Belfast). Friday, Agust 23, 2013

Dear Richard Haass,

THOUGHT I’d drop you a line (already I’m declaring my age by use of that expression) to add my thoughts to the multitude of advice you will have received already about your forthcoming assignment in Northern Ireland.

Mind you, George Mitchell may have warned you that three months is an incredibly challenging time frame to hope to get us to agree on anything – we take our time about embracing any kind of change here. Three decades rather than three months might be more realistic.

However, this is my most important message, so listen carefully. Our tortured angst which people will tell you is about flags, emblems, marches and erosion of their culture is not really about that at all. There is a huge lumbering elephant in the room. It is a silent one; everyone ignores its presence, even though at times it sucks up all the oxygen and leaves those closest to it completely exhausted. But even though this elephant with its dark shadow permeates into every aspect of life here, no-one discusses it. Our elephant is demographic change, underpinned by economic forces, which is inexorably, unstoppably leading to a situation where sooner or later, and some say sooner than many think, the Catholic population will be in the majority here. Already the 2011 census figures show there is a figure of almost 46 per cent – and rising – because of a young growing Catholic and an older Protestant population. As I say, this is never discussed head on. From time to time our local papers, our universities too, undertake surveys to ascertain what way this growing population of Catholics would vote in a referendum about the border.

Soothing reassuring noises are made when results show that a sizeable portion of the Catholic population indicate that they are really quite happy with the status quo, ie an identifiable Northern Ireland which has the monetary safety net of Britain but freedom to develop and celebrate our ‘Irishness’. But truth be told the Protestant, or more accurately the unionist population don’t really believe these optimistic results of surveys. An almost century of intermittent bloody campaigns creating deep mistrust, fuelled on both sides over the years, cannot be ameliorated by a few sample answers to hypothetical questions.

Also, the well-ingrained view that Northern Ireland was created as a Protestant land for a Protestant people is in the DNA of people who, through generations, have lived in fear of the south taking over. They see this fear coming closer to reality, and because no-one discusses the matter, the dread assumes the proportion of a living nightmare. To add substance to the fear, not only is the minority fast heading towards a majority, but in economic terms they are also forging ahead, so that institutions, the professions, the businesses, previously dominated by good Protestant loyal stock are becoming increasingly populated by educated Catholics – because the fact is that Catholic schools are achieving better results than the state ones. Add into this pot of concerns the demise of all the wonderful manufacturing industries which provided work and status to a majority of Protestant craftsmen and remember that Protestant areas are not as surefooted in creatively using community development resources as their Catholic counterparts who have had more practice and are more cohesive anyhow. Consider all this and you will begin to understand the despair of people who did feel, because they were encouraged to believe, that they were the masters of this small insular universe. If you really think through the implications of this major cultural and economic shift,

Richard, you will begin to feel the fear. I hope you get it, that fixing only what you have been asked to resolve will just deal with the symptoms. If you are to help us on our journey towards a future together, somehow you must help us to start getting familiar with this elephant, slumbering beast that he (definitely a he) is. Otherwise new symptoms of fear will replace the old ones.

Finally, Richard, you will learn quickly if you haven’t already that we are essentially a Jekyll and Hyde-type people. While some of us are prepared to go to prison for the sake of a flag, a street away it is probable that Catholics and Protestants together are partying and enjoying themselves without a care in the world. So if the brooding presence of the elephant gets too much, come out, and enjoy yourself. Sure, the craic’s mighty.