Nothing will ever be the same again

THE TECTONIC plates are shifting in Northern Ireland, bringing a new order into being. David Trimble and John Hume have beamed and shaken hands together, Bono of U2 between them, establishing a new template with that single powerful image.

Northern Ireland has never been any sort of agreed society. Nationalists felt disaffected and unwelcome, and there were always plenty of people like Ian Paisley to reinforce that feeling of alienation. With today's vote it may take a step in the direction of becoming a civil society rather than a tribal entity.

There is much sectarianism and tribalism and fierce mistrust. More than a few people feel unable to relinquish the old model in which incompatible ideologies remain locked in interminable conflict. You can see it in their eyes: that excited gleam when their side scores, the glumness when the other side scores a goal. This is politics as a football match, with added violence.

As of today, however, new models are on offer. The tribal model will still be there; a Unionist majority pitched against a Catholic minority. But there is also going to be a new civil majority, consisting of the people who will put this referendum through. They include almost all Catholics and a substantial number of Protestants.

There will also be an all- Ireland model, for the fact that the south is voting too, and will overwhelmingly vote "Yes", will provide an island-wide endorsement of the Good Friday agreement. To that can be added the important international dimension - Bill Clinton taking a personal interest in urging a fresh start.

Then there is the Blair dimension. Margaret Thatcher was passionate about Northern Ireland, but only sporadically; John Major had a deep interest, but lacked the political strength to act with real boldness. Tony Blair has sustained determination, an extraordinary attention to detail and an eye for the big picture. His campaigning zeal has undoubtedly added many points to the "Yes" vote.

The changes which are on the way are being eagerly embraced by the Catholic community, whose communal experience in the old Northern Ireland has left it hyper-politicised, with a great appetite for innovation and a great relish for politics.

Gerry Adams sits in west Belfast, preparing for government, having led a republican movement profoundly steeped in militarism to the point of participation in a new Northern Ireland administration. That transition to the purely political will take years to complete.

But a historic start has been made, and in this seismic shift he has brought almost all his people with him, shedding along the way only a few splinters rather than splits. More than 90 per cent of his people, and those of John Hume, will today be voting for the Good Friday agreement.

The importance of this change in nationalist attitudes has been obscured by the recent concentration on the divisions within Unionism, as that community faces a painful defining moment. The pace of the coming change will be influenced but not controlled by the outcome of that internal strife and the size of the "No" vote.

The referendum is going to pass in Northern Ireland; with virtually all the Catholics and nationalists on board, the main point of uncertainty is how many Protestants are going to vote "Yes". Whatever the figures the internal civil war is set to continue since the Rev Ian Paisley, whatever else he is, is certainly not a quitter.

The assembly is going to witness bitter scenes, since such institutions provide great opportunities for Paisleyite histrionics. His Democratic Unionist Party glories in conflict and accepts religious apartheid as the natural and indeed preferable order of things, opposing both social and political reconciliation. Most of its activists, and certainly its leader, believe this is primarily a religious and not a political problem. Under this definition the search for compromise is not just futile but dangerous.

The "No" voters will not all be Paisleyites. Some are indeed just bigots who dislike not only Adams, not only Hume, but Catholics and Catholicism in general. Others live in a world of intense mistrust - of Catholics and nationalists, of British governments, of any Unionist leaders who tell that partnership and co-existence is the way ahead.

One telling feature of the intense debate within Unionism is that the "No" campaign has signally failed to attract the public support of the Protestant intelligentsia. This is not to say that No voters are not intelligent - some of the politicians around Ian Paisley are among Northern Ireland's brightest. But the intellectuals, the senior businessmen, churchmen, academics and so on seem overwhelmingly to be for a "Yes" vote.

The point is, though, that much of the Protestant working class and the small farmers have over the years stuck with Paisley through thick and thin. Every opinion poll suggests his core support is unmoved by all the talk of reconciliation, fresh starts and new horizons.

One of the features of the referendum mechanism is that it requires doubting Protestants actually to go out and vote. Much of the change that has already taken place in Northern Ireland has involved only their passive acceptance, but this time they are being asked to perform an act of positive affirmation for radical reforms. On one reading this is a drawback for the "Yes" campaigners but on another it may prove an asset, since it will increase the sense of personal and communal commitment to the new deal.

But whatever the result, Paisley is not going to go away, you know, for after today's vote it will be straight back into the political trenches for the assembly elections of 25 June. One appalling vista for the authorities has him, in concert with the "No" faction within the Trimble camp, harrying and harassing the weaker links until the whole deal becomes completely bogged down.

But another theory, which is not at all fanciful, sees a decent "Yes" vote, following which many of the Unionist doubters accept that a cross- community majority has spoken, that the movement of those tectonic plates is irresistible and inevitable, and that the agreement should be given a fair wind.

If that is the case then perhaps the sky's the limit. Intense political controversies will go on for years but perhaps the dead weight of all that awful history, all that stifling sectarianism, all that culture of confrontation will gradually begin to lift. A good "Yes" vote could open the floodgates to a new surge of reasonableness.

Some will continue to revel in division but a clear majority in the populace as a whole is simply fed up with the whole thing, wants it over and wants to stop fighting and get down to constructive business. Today they will speak in the referendum, signifying that they believe in their bones that there can be a better life for all.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Microsoft Gold partner, our c...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum