The riots and marches in the Province over the flying of the Union Flag from Belfast's City Hall are something unusual; not the organised activity of the traditional nationalist political parties, but a genuine cry of hurt and frustration from the grassroots nationalist community. For these are a people under intense pressure. The flag decision may even be sufficient to lower the protestant birth rate another notch, the biological reaction of any highly stressed mammalian population.
For many years now protestants have been out-bred by the Province's Catholic population, and although the 2011 census may show a slowing or convergence beginning to emerge, the Catholics have a large cohort of women just coming into prime child bearing age whilst protestant women are older. Catholic education and employment levels have increased dramatically whilst those of the old working class protestant population have not. Protestant voters are dying younger than their Catholic counterparts. And to cap it all, whilst Sinn Fein has maintained close working-class credentials with the Catholic population, the DUP and UUP have not done so - leaving the community feeling a leadership vacuum. Demographically and politically, those marching in Belfast know they're facing eventual minority status in the Province, perhaps within their lifetimes.
There is no great appetite at present in either Eire or amongst the Province's Catholics for uniting the Island under a single State. Ireland's economic boom has also done much to weaken the influence of the Church; the Irish have become Rome's most disobedient Catholics, with pressure for women priests and married clergy also coming in the wake of a tsunami of abuse revelations about the religious communities. The religious and ideological differences between the nationalist and republican communities are becoming more blurred. And this, I hope, is the answer; a convergence in which both communities can share a Northern Irish cultural identity - for Ulstermen both protestant and Catholic died in windrows on the Somme, and fought shoulder to shoulder from Singapore to Murmansk in the second war. The harp that forms the fourth quarter of the sovereign's escutcheon is borne with pride by the United Kingdom; not the vain pride of conquest, but the fraternal earned pride of honour and dignity.