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.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

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

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album