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MENAFN - Arab News - 05/12/2012

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(MENAFN - Arab News) London's decision to grant Scotland a referendum on independence after 300 years has raised an awkward question for Northern Ireland's Catholics.

After centuries fighting for its downfall, do they really want the United Kingdom to collapse?

Irish nationalist leaders have seized on Scotland's 2014 vote as the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom and are calling for their own referendum on ending hundreds of years of rule from London.

But many Irish Catholics, the mainstay of the Republican cause for a united Ireland, appear reluctant to seize what their leaders say is a historic opportunity, fearful of upsetting a fragile peace and nervous of who will pay the bills.

"We are better off staying where we are from a rational and an emotional point of view," said Sean Kerr, a 61-year-old supporter of Sinn Fein, the main pro-Irish nationalist party.

"We went through 'The Troubles' and things have settled down, people are getting on together. Just leave us alone. Just let the hare sit, as they say up here." He is not alone. Fifty-two percent of the province's Catholics think it should remain part of the United Kingdom, according to the last major poll on the issue, released last year.

That number has been seized upon by unionist rivals in recent weeks as proof that a referendum would fail in Northern Ireland, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) saying that Catholic resistance meant Northern Ireland's place in the union was more secure that Scotland's. Resistance to British rule has been at the core of Irish nationalism since Henry VIII of England declared himself King of Ireland in the 16th century. After the Irish state secured independence from Britain in 1921, Northern Irish Catholics remained part of United Kingdom in a northern state dominated by Protestants, many of whose ancestors had settled from Scotland.

Catholics' protests that they were being treated as second-class citizens and the desire to rejoin the south helped fuel 'The Troubles,' three decades of tit-for-tat bombings and shootings that killed 3,600 until a peace deal in 1998 introduced a power-sharing government.

While Catholics say most of their civil rights grievances have since been addressed, resistance to British rule, with the Irish tricolor its most potent symbol remains a central part of their identity.

On the other side, thousands of Protestant "Loyalists" still demonstrate their attachment to Britain every year by marching, bowler-hatted, through Belfast and other towns in the province to celebrate a 300-year-old battlefield victory over Catholics.

A key concern for Irish Catholics, as they look south and see the economic devastation left in the wake of Ireland's Celtic Tiger crash, is the economics of splitting from Britain.

While activists in Scotland say direct control of the income from its offshore oil fields would more than make up for subsidies from London, almost everyone in Northern Ireland admits that it benefits financially from London.
The province secures around 10 billion pounds ( 16 billion), or about half of total public sector spending, through an annual block grant from Britain. Just under one-third of the population is employed in the public sector, the highest level in the United Kingdom.

Sinn Fein says combining public services for Ireland's 4.5 million people and Northern Ireland's 1.8 million would create cost savings, but its arguments have not convinced many.

To split with London in the current climate would be "totally insane" said Jim Wade, a Catholic businessman.

"If there was a vote in the morning, I would vote for a united Ireland. But at the same time I don't think we could afford it. I know down there, they couldn't afford it," he said of the Irish government.

Many northern Catholics looked on in envy as the Celtic Tiger transformed the Republic from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of its richest.
But since a property boom began to collapse in 2007 and Dublin signed up to an EU-IMF bailout three years later, unemployment has surged to a near 20-year high of just under 15 percent, compared to 8 percent in the north.
Even in staunchly Republican areas of Belfast, the economic reality of the decision remains a nagging worry.

"I have never come across anybody in these areas who wants to stay with Britain," said Margaret Shannon, 58, shopping on the predominantly Catholic Falls Road in Belfast.

"But it depends on the moment that they pick. When people look to the south and see them cutting funding again, taking bus passes from pensioners. That's what would unsettle people."

In the Republic of Ireland the dream of united Ireland remains a central tenet of Irish nationalism, the subject of countless ballads and an article of faith for political parties across the spectrum.


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