Demographic shifts force change on NI politicians

Northern Ireland census figures give hard data that weighs on political ambitions

The failure of Stormont to provide Northern Ireland-wide agreements over issues such as flying the union flag or the official use of the Irish language has seen local councils going on solo runs over the status given to British or Irish identity. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The failure of Stormont to provide Northern Ireland-wide agreements over issues such as flying the union flag or the official use of the Irish language has seen local councils going on solo runs over the status given to British or Irish identity. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

You’ve heard it said a thousand times in relation to politics in Northern Ireland: “Politics never changes in this place . . .”

But it does. Society in Northern Ireland has been reimagined since the decades of violence. The pace of progress, however, has now slowed to a crawl.

Events over the last decade could only move as quickly as they were allowed to by political parties and by the British and Irish governments. But there are now growing signals that events outside the control of those same politicians are exerting pressure.

Major demographic shifts are being felt in Northern Ireland’s population, while upheaval in Britain and in the Republic of Ireland threatens to redraw the political map around us.

New debates on the way forward are required for a part of the UK and Ireland that is still burdened by sectarian tension, political instability and a history of violence.

Old certainties

Politicians promising the delivery of old certainties are either fooling themselves or trying to fool voters. Northern Ireland is a place transformed.

Northern Ireland was established in 1921 amid the violence of the Irish War of Independence. Its founders drew a line on the map that would create the largest possible Protestant/unionist majority inside the new state. The partition of Ireland left small Protestant communities in an almost entirely Catholic state on the southern side of the new Border, while Catholics in the fledgling Northern Ireland found the world changing around them. The late 1960s saw the outbreak of the Troubles while, below the surface, the population had also started slowly to shift.

religion

A tipping point came in December 2012 when census results showed that for the first time the Protestant population in Northern Ireland had fallen below 50 per cent. Today the Protestant population has dropped to 48 per cent and the rising Catholic population has hit 45 per cent.

These figures refer to religious upbringing, but census data asking people to select a religious belief shows that an increasing portion fall outside the two main blocs. Religion broadly denotes political identity, but anyone who winces at sectarian headcounts can take comfort in the fact that the figures mean the future must be a shared one.

The census data contains hard numbers that weigh down on the ambitions of politicians: unionists know continued change is inevitable, while republicans know their ambitions for Irish unity have to recognise the huge unionist bloc.

A closer look at the data shows that across the 11 local government districts, the controlling majorities shift between Orange and Green.

The failure of Stormont to provide Northern Ireland-wide agreements over issues such as flying the union flag or the official use of the Irish language has seen local councils going on solo runs over the status given to British or Irish identity.

The fracturing of old positions is reflected in the census data on national identity, which showed that 38 per cent regard themselves as British, 25 per cent as Irish and 20 per cent as Northern Irish. Northern Ireland is a community of minorities, even if government is struggling to keep pace with the changes.

Changes elsewhere in the UK will also have an influence on Northern Ireland’s future. The Scottish National Party is growing in influence and it is pushing for greater independence from Westminster.

Cause for concern

In England Ukip is using its influence to push the Conservative party on the issue of leaving the European Union.

That could give cause for concern in Northern Ireland, which has received more than €7,533 million in direct investment from the EU since 1988, and where the EU’s single farm payment accounted for 87 per cent of the total income for farming here.

In the Republic, Sinn Féin has emerged as a party with governmental ambitions over the next decade.

Demographic data in Northern Ireland tells a potentially positive story of inter-dependency, where the future has to be based on compromise. Whatever happens, some new thinking will be needed.

Voters could begin by asking election candidates if they have a strategy for the future that stretches beyond polling day on May 7th.

Steven McCaffery is editor of the Belfast-based news and analysis website The Detail. Its infographic project, Imaging NI, which is produced with financial support from the Community Relations Council, can be seen from today at thedetail.tv

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