For good or for ill, the symbiosis between nationalism and Catholicism that was once a given all across Ireland is still potent in the North. It’s not surprising given the sectarian nature of the six-county state from its creation almost a century ago that Catholics united in opposition. From the beginning, anti-Catholicism was endemic and through a process of gerrymandering and unapologetic apartheid the founders of the state ensured that Catholics were largely excluded from civil society.
In that context, bishops and priests were community leaders and the Church provided a cohesiveness that galvanised the Catholic and nationalist community in a way that would lead to the agitation for civil rights that was sweeping the world in the 1960s coming to the North too.
The brutal repression of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) by the supremacist regime at Stormont further poisoned relations between the establishment and the minority community and gave licence to those who argued that violence to oppose the state was the only avenue open to the Catholic community.
The great genius of John Hume was in convincing Catholics that the North could be reformed and a culture could be created where Catholics and nationalists enjoyed parity of esteem and could get a fair crack of the whip.
A series of measure as diverse as the redrawing of electoral boundaries, fair employment legislation and equal school funding meant that Catholics started to be treated the same as the majority community by the state and Catholic education became the gold standard.
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 ensured that there was no going back to the bad old days of Unionist rule and power-sharing was the order of the day. A powerful illustration of the new dispensation was the fact that the Lord Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions were all Catholics. Policing – long a bastion of the ancient regime – became a credible career path for young nationalists and Catholics are now proud to wear that uniform.
The peace process – for all of its flaws – had worked and most people were happy with the status quo and had the same hopes and aspirations for health, happiness and prosperity for their families. All of this happened in the context of an ever-more-integrated Europe.
Brexit has smashed that consensus and polarised the North in a way that was unimaginable just a few short years ago. Catholics – who voted in large numbers to remain – feel that they are being cut off from their natural ties with the rest of Ireland.
Brexit is largely an exercise in English nationalism and the triumphalism leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many Catholics who know that when the ugliest forms of supremacy take control it never ends well. It doesn’t help that some commentators refer to Brexit as a second Reformation without mentioning the fact that the English Reformation unleased centuries of anti-Catholic violence and discrimination.
In a letter to the British Prime Minister David Trimble and Kate Hoey make the audacious claim that fears about the effects of Brexit on the peace process are ‘groundless’. It is a reckless and ignorant intervention and – as the voices raised in The Irish Catholic this week prove – bizarre for Mr Trimble and Ms Hoey to claim to represent the views of Catholics to Theresa May.
The fears around Brexit are real, it has divided the two communities in the North in a way that is unprecedented. It has also dismantled the status quo to such an extent that most nationalists – and even moderate unionists – now see Irish unification as the only realistic path to a future that is open to the wider world.
It might be fashionable for some to see Brexit as little more than a contrarian kick against the Establishment. Some Irish people see the EU as unwieldly, wasteful and overarching and resent the goal of ‘ever closer union’ delight in Britain leaving the union.
That is as short-sighted as it is dangerous. Brexit is bad news for Ireland, we can only hope – and as people of faith pray – that it does the least amount of damage possible.
Michael Kelly is co-author of a new book with Austen Ivereigh How to Defend the Faith – Without Raising Your Voice – it is available from Columba Books.