A rational person – one who seeks to maximise their own happiness and well-being – would seek to be part of the superior society. This, indeed, is what lies behind much of modern-day migration. But migration has costs as well as benefits – the financial cost of moving, the social cost of leaving your family and community, the risk of alienation or even violence in the new home, and the risk of capture and deportation for those migrants who are illegal. So in practice, most people do not migrate – most Mexicans stay in Mexico, and most Somalis stay in Somalia.
Almost uniquely in the world, though, the people of Northern Ireland have the legal power to migrate their whole territory from the inferior state to the superior one. The terms of the British-Irish Agreement (Article 1(iv)) state that:
"… if in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish".A 'migration' of the whole of Northern Ireland – by reunification with the south – would remove all of the costs that physical migrants face. There would be no need for individuals to actually move, they would thus suffer no disruption to their family or community lives, and there would be no financial costs. Yet, almost immediately, they would benefit from their inclusion in a more modern, freer and more democratic state.
So why do they not do it? Why does a very slender majority (soon to be only a plurality) continually vote to remain tied to the less free, less democratic, poorer and less contented state to their east?
The answer, of course, lies in the complicated area of identity.
Unionists are quick to point out that – regardless of the higher quality of life in the south – they wish to remain in the UK because they are British. Such a point of view cannot be argued away, as it is an emotional attachment rather than simply an economic one. Emotional attachments can withstand enormous counter-arguments – people are prepared to forego the possibilities of higher living standards, better health care, better climates, better education and so on, rather than change what they perceive themselves to be. Identity is complex – the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was greeted by black people worldwide as an election of 'one of their own' – despite the obvious facts that for non-Americans he was not 'one of their own' in terms of nationality, for black women he was not 'one of their own' gender, or for poor blacks he was certainly not 'one of their own' economically. Yet they felt a kindred spirit in terms of skin pigmentation.
A similar anomaly can be seen in Britain, where large numbers of migrants and children of migrants refuse to assimilate. They maintain their attachment to their places of origin despite the obvious economic superiority of the west. They retain strong attachments to repressive cultures despite the offer of western freedoms. They do this because they have a strong emotional bind to the identity that they were born into.
In the context of Northern Ireland this can be seen in the fact that despite long decades during which the economic situation south of the border was bad, and the north clearly offered a higher standard of living, most northern nationalists retained their Irish identities. Despite the constant jibes from unionists about how health and education were better in the north – even, on occasions, about how a can of Coke or a Mars bar was cheaper in the north – the vast majority of northern nationalists retained their sense of themselves as Irish, and kept alive the desire to see the reunification of their country, when times were better.
The lesson to be drawn from this is clear.
Identities are not easily changed by economic realities. In the 1950s northern nationalists did not become unionists. Similarly, in the 2000s northern unionists will not become nationalists. Despite all of the indices that this blog has publicised, probably not more than a handful of unionists have even started to question their unionism.
Likewise, unionist attempts to 'convert' nationalists by boasting about how being in the UK gives them access to all sorts of things are equally futile. Nationalists know, in any case, that all EU citizens have access to exactly the same sorts of things – there are no 'membership privileges' that being in the UK gives that are not shared or surpassed by EU membership.
The future of Northern Ireland, therefore, will not be decided by conversions from one tribe to the other. It will be decided by the relative sizes of the two tribes. Both tribes will retain their identities, but if one outnumbers the other, then the see-saw will swing. This blog offers a record of how the balance is changing – and in historical terms it is changing very fast. The growth in the nationalist electorate, and in its corresponding Catholic 'identity community', is remarkable over the past generation – and the corresponding decline in the unionist/Protestant 'identity community' is equally remarkable. Demographic changes have a momentum that is very slow to change, and it is likely that the Catholic/nationalist community will outnumber the Protestant/unionist community before the juggernaut slows down.
The best that the Protestant/unionist community can hope for is that it negotiates a decent place for itself in the new Ireland that will come. The good news is that, on the basis of the various indices on democracy, freedom and equality, it will find that easy to do.