Unionists must heed numerical rise of Catholics
Analysis:The great constitutional question always hangs over Northern Ireland. The 2011 census figures released yesterday show that 48 per cent of the Northern Ireland population comes from a Protestant background while 45 per cent is from a Catholic background. For the first time, Protestants are a minority in terms of the overall population.
In round terms, there are 864,000 people who are or were brought up as Protestants compared to 810,000 Catholics – a difference of just 54,000. A significant narrowing of the sectarian divide from the 2001 census, when there were 890,000 such Protestants and 740,000 such Catholics in Northern Ireland – a difference of 150,000.
This will cheer up those nationalists who think in terms of crude sectarian headcounts, particularly if that trend continues. But what will please similar unionists is that just one in four of the North’s 1.8 million people sees themselves as exclusively Irish.
Catholic up, Protestant down
The overall population from a Catholic background is up from 44 to 45 per cent since the 2001 census, while the Protestant figure is down from 53 per cent to 48 per cent. That decline is mainly down to mortality and some migration.
The census shows that 17 per cent of the population had no religion or did not state their religion, while 41 per cent declared themselves Catholic. When you tot up the figures for the Presbyterian (19 per cent), Church of Ireland (14 per cent), Methodist (3 per cent) and other Christian and Christian-related denominations (5.8 per cent), it totals 41.8 per cent – barely above the Catholic figure.
But what fascinate are the figures around identity. Two-fifths (40 per cent) said they were British only, a quarter said they were exclusively Irish and just over one-fifth (21 per cent) said they were Northern Irish only. That latter figure means that 378,000 people in Northern Ireland – a broad spectrum of Northern society from unionist and nationalist areas – view themselves as simply Northern Irish. This reflects shifts recently explored in our series on Northern Ireland.
What the census clearly demonstrates is that Northern Ireland is changing and unionists and nationalists would be wise to be mindful of how that change is managed.
Scrutiny of the information might persuade the unionist politicians who are getting so agitated over the British union flag and the loyalists who are threatening and attempting murder and causing havoc around the issue “to wind their necks in”, as they say up here.
A more cautious approach from Sinn Féin and the SDLP at Belfast City Hall might have been helpful. They could have bided their time on the flag, allowing the census figures sink into the unionist consciousness, to demonstrate more vividly that Belfast is no longer a unionist city.
Unionist politicians can take some comfort that just 25 per cent of the population consider themselves solely Irish. But unionist politicians can also do the arithmetic. If there are 864,000 people from a Protestant background and 810,000 from a Catholic background, then they should know it’s in their interests to keep on side those Catholics who are happy with the current powersharing that recognises Irish identity.
Ignoring local democracy as was applied, however cack-handedly, at Belfast City Hall over the union flag signals a very self-serving and selective understanding of democracy. If unionism refuses to act smart and with respect, it could rapidly alienate the Catholics First Minister Peter Robinson knows he needs to maintain the union.
* Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor