THE recent release of the much-anticipated NI census figures caused quite a stir. Unsurprisingly, headlines across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland produced a furore focused on the fact that Catholics now outnumber Protestants in the six counties for the first time since the statelet was carved out of Ireland 101 years ago. In fairness to the press, this story was much more than media madness. Indeed, ‘Northern Ireland’ was infamously created on the basis of a sectarian headcount. It was an artificially constructed polity designed to ensure that a “Protestant state for a Protestant people,” to quote James Craig, would endure for eternity.
At first glance, I felt the census results merely reflected another symbolic moment in the changing nature of the northern state. In recent years we have seen the Unionist political majority disappear from Stormont, Sinn Fein become the largest party in the North, and now the supposed perpetual Protestant majority is no more. Intriguing as those notable events may be, it is only the constitutional implications that I, as a United Irelander, am interested in.
A deeper look
So what information can be extrapolated from the data?
The religious statistics are designed to try and capture community background, rather than genuine faith or church attendance. The Catholic—including those raised in a Catholic family—population only rose from 45.1 per cent in 2011 to 45.7 per cent a decade later. However, those from Protestant backgrounds fell from 48.4 per cent to 43.5 per cent. Quite what this means for the security of the union is unclear, given that a significant minority of Catholics appear happy to tolerate the status quo, whereas very few Protestants tend to favour Irish unity. It would seem that a lot depends on those from the other/no religion categories, if a united Ireland has any chance of coming to fruition in the short term.
To get a better understanding of what the future holds, there are two further metrics that are key to consider. Upon dissecting them, the direction of travel becomes clear and it is very positive news for the many of us among the Irish diaspora who wish to see our ancestral home become a nation once again.
Firstly, the national identity figures show that 29 per cent of the six county population identify as Irish only, up from 25 per cent. Meanwhile, British only identity has dramatically fallen from 40 per cent in 2011 to 31.8 per cent in the latest census. In addition to those two core identities, circa 20 per cent of people identify as Northern Irish only. The latter category is perhaps most interesting.
Despite some media outlets—and Unionists— claiming that Irish identity sitting at a third indicates low support for reunification; the two major Nationalist parties (Sinn Féin and the SDLP) currently have 38 per cent of the vote share and the overall Nationalist share of the vote is 41.5 per cent. Therefore, it must follow that a considerable number of Northern Irish identifying individuals hail from the Nationalist/Republican community.
Furthermore, recent polls have suggested that the middle grounders within this cohort, most of whom vote for the Alliance party, largely transfer to Sinn Féin and are pro-united Ireland. This position is likely held due to economic reasons, the chance to re-join the EU and because a New Ireland is viewed as an opportunity to reach a fresh
accommodation free from the scourge of Tory rule or DUP bigotry and intransigence.
Youth and religion
The main source of encouragement that I can see for United Irelanders is the breakdown of age groups highlighting one clear road ahead. The census results are very damning for Unionism when put in the context of voting patterns. In every age group between 18 and 40, the sizable majority of people vote for Sinn Féin and the SDLP. By contrast, older age groups such as those in the 60+ category are much more Unionist in their voting behaviour. And that trend of younger Nationalists replacing older Unionists is set to continue.
Religion is a crude measurement, which I don’t like using, but given the correlation between Protestant background and support for the maintenance of the union, it cannot be ignored that the decline of the Protestant population poses an issue for those who want partition to remain in place. An ageing Protestant demographic has already seen British identity shrink and the Unionist vote decline in each of the last three decades. Simultaneously, Irish identity has increased along with the Nationalist vote and Catholic demographic.
Younger Catholics appear to be much more Nationalist or Republican in their thinking and indeed their voting. Catholics are an overwhelming majority among the school age population of the north and within each age range from 18-34 up to 35-59. The outworking of this demographics’ greater birth rate has already had an effect, but it is yet to be fully felt. To put it another way, former SDLP politician, Brian Feeney, wrote in his column for The Irish News: “An obvious consequence is that the ageing Protestant population will decline as a percentage total (of the six counties) even more rapidly.” While he also boldly remarked: “The people who will vote for a united Ireland are already born.”
We may eventually move beyond the outdated religious tags, which are little more than a cultural community indicator. Until such time, it is accurate to say that the Protestant majority has gone, but a Unionist majority remains—in terms of how people would vote in a border poll at present. However, the data backs up recent polls which suggest support for unity currently sits at 40-45 per cent, and those figures are only set to rise if young people don’t stray from their political beliefs later in life, the middle ground continue to be persuaded about the merits of constitutional change, and those who vote for Nationalist/ Republican parties will also vote to end the union in any future border poll. With that in mind, there is every reason to have cautious optimism about the prospect of Irish unity in the next 20-30 years.