Catholic majority in Northern Ireland to present dilemma for Britain and Republic


THE BRITISH and Irish governments and the people of Northern Ireland are facing the prospect – and sooner than most people might think – of how to manage a transformed constitutional situation where the majority in the North are likely to be from a Catholic background.

It’s going to raise serious questions for southerners too, who must also address complex constitutional problems that if not managed properly and creatively could land Northern Ireland – and the rest of the island – back in the mire.

It’s time for the beginning of a calm debate.

The figures are revealed in the statistics: there are now significantly more Catholics than Protestants in nursery, primary, second- and third-level education in Northern Ireland. If that trend continues, and it’s difficult to see a reason why it should not, then in another generation or so the majority population should be Catholic or from a Catholic background – people of voting age, most of whose immediate antecedents are nationalist in their political outlook.

The figures clearly indicate shifting religious and political sands in Northern Ireland which First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson implicitly acknowledged recently by making a direct pitch to Catholics to hold with the North’s union with Britain.

Figures from Northern Ireland’s Department of Education for 2010/11 show 120,415 Protestants and 163,693 Catholics in the North’s schools.

SOLELY WITHIN THOSE figures that is a breakdown of 57.6 per cent Catholic, 42.4 per cent Protestant. Although that is not allowing for an additional 37,609 who classify themselves as “other Christian” (8,282), “non-Christian” (1,726) and the 27,601 who fall into the category of “other/no religion/religion not recorded”.

Figures for 2009/10 obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister show that in Queen’s University there are 8,710 Northern Ireland domiciled students of a Catholic background compared with 6,740 from a Protestant tradition.

On the University of Ulster’s four campuses there are 11,070 Catholics and 7,020 Protestants.

In the two teacher-training colleges – Stranmillis and St Mary’s (which is virtually exclusively Catholic) – there are 1,215 Catholics and 650 Protestants.

In total, therefore, at third level there are 20,995 students (59.3 per cent) from a Catholic background and 14,410 (40.7 per cent) from a Protestant background.

Another issue is the predilection for many Protestants to attend higher education in Britain and for more of them – compared to Catholics at college in Britain – to remain living there rather than return to live and work in Northern Ireland.

It is plain that the movement is in one direction. So, will that probable majority population also be predominantly nationalist and of such critical mass as to vote Northern Ireland into a united Ireland?

There are a couple of answers to this: one is we don’t know; and the other is, it depends.

The 2011 census figures based on religious affiliation will not be known until the autumn of 2012. The 2001 census had the Protestant population at 53.1 per cent and Catholics at 43.8 per cent. The latest census should show a higher Catholic representation with a more dramatic narrowing of the gap expected in the next census in 2021.

LAST YEAR’S ASSEMBLYelections provided a reasonable notion of the current Orange-Green state of play. Some 48 per cent of voters opted for unionist parties and politicians while 42 per cent voted for nationalist parties and politicians – Alliance, the Greens and socialist or independent-types hoovering up the rest. Alliance won 7.7 per cent of the vote and some will argue that most of this vote would be pro-union which, if correct, bolsters the pro-union electoral representation.

Most of the earlier aforementioned statistics refer to people who are too young to vote but in the coming years they will be enfranchised.

While – as seems demographically likely – the number of people of voting age and of Catholic background will steadily increase, it does not necessarily follow that the vote for nationalist parties will rise at a parallel rate. But it certainly means that the political dynamic in Northern Ireland will progressively change and that will bring significant challenges for Northern politicians and for the British and Irish governments.

Dr Peter Shirlow is a senior lecturer in the Queen’s University school of law. He is from a unionist background and in a mixed marriage and believes his own experience reflects a changing facet of Northern society, of an increasing religious and political cross-fertilisation, so to speak.

“With secularisation there is a growing ‘1690 what do you mean’ group that is similar to the ‘1916 what do you mean’ group in the South,” he says. “There is a growth in people who feel politics is too sectarian or too nationalist. They are operating a civic-shared identity through their lifestyle. They will socialise together, intermarry, go to gigs together. They are in many ways – but not completely – sectarian blind, or tradition blind.

“It was primarily within the unionist electorate but from my observations it is starting to grow within the nationalist community. It is neither unionist nor Irish, it is identity-less, at most pale Orange or Green.

“There is also a slight social distance between the North and the South. You get it in sport, including in GAA, where people are described as ‘you Northerners, or you Nordies’,” he adds.

A recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey – a rolling record of public opinion – found more than half of Catholics in Northern Ireland (52 per cent) want the long-term future of the North to be as part of the United Kingdom compared with just one in three Catholics favouring a united Ireland.

“All of these surveys have shown over time that there are more Catholics that would stay in Northern Ireland than there are Protestants who would vote for a united Ireland,” says Shirlow. “That does not mean that they don’t speak Irish, or don’t feel culturally Irish but it is a material economic argument for them that this is a better place to live.”

But Shirlow is also conscious of the cussedness of human nature and the unpredictability of events that can cast people back to their nationalist and unionist trenches and mindsets. For instance, and heaven forbid, if there were the equivalent of another Bloody Sunday, or even a Drumcree-type nationalist-unionist standoff, would that trigger shocks that could resurrect the old sectarian “them and us” divisions, he wonders.

“What we need to know is what is the difference between emotional Irishness as in ‘I am Irish, I feel Irish’ and political Irishness as in ‘I have to be Irish, I have to be in a united Ireland’. All of that is up in the air and that is what Peter Robinson has picked up on.”

FIONNUALA O CONNOR, a writer, commentator and journalist formerly of this parish, when considering the demographic landscape ahead, enters several caveats such as the questions: will Catholic numbers continue to rise ahead of Protestant numbers? Will issues such as lower university fees here prompt more young Protestants to remain in Northern Ireland rather than study and stay in Britain, as a high proportion of them do? Nonetheless, she points to an increasing confidence among Catholics, citing how it is “common knowledge among Catholics for some time that their schools have a higher enrolment than state schools, and more recently that school exam results are better”.

Similar to Shirlow she notes a “very widespread awareness of the Republic’s mixed but mostly alienated disposition towards the North, Northern nationalists and unification – the McGuinness presidential campaign crystallising that view”.

While her book, In Search of a State: Catholics in Northern Ireland, published 16 years ago, gives an insight into how Catholics might react if in a majority, she is careful to stress that nobody can really predict what will happen.

Yet, O Connor is reasonably confident that whatever transformation unfolds that it will take place without major upheaval such is the level of Northern Catholic confidence.

“A strong Northern Catholic community won’t ever be put down again,” she says. “If unification looks undoable and unwanted by the Republic, they’ll work something out. To know you have a majority among the young, and that growing numbers of those young are doing well in education, that’s a big underlying strength.”

As for the prospects of a united Ireland in a generation or so?

“It would need to be a handsome majority before Irish and British governments would agree a referendum on unification,” says O Connor. “A big resentful Protestant minority is a dislikeable enough prospect.”

DR BRIAN FEENEYis a historian and author of Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years, a former SDLP councillor and a polemical weekly columnist for the nationalist Irish News.

He believes that a nationalist majority may happen in about 25 years. “But what happens in the event of a plebiscite and the result is 51 per cent/49 per cent?” he asks, echoing O Connor’s argument.

“Does anybody really believe that the British are going to say, ‘Right we are out of here on Tuesday?’ Of course not. You are going to have to try to find an agreement with that 49 per cent. Otherwise you are going to flip the coin over and have the same kind of alienation that existed before the Good Friday agreement, before the whole Troubles started.”

Feeney wonders how the famous unionist siege mentality would cope with the demographic change that appears to be coming. “People have to be careful. If people feel threatened they are going to resist; there is no question about that,” he warns.

“It is going to be a long process to try to demonstrate to people that their rights are not threatened,” he adds. “You have got to reach an arrangement where unionists will believe that they can still remain British, can call themselves British and have exactly the same rights as people in Shrewsbury or Birmingham.”

That arrangement will be for the politicians and the two governments to work out. And such is the history of Ireland that many people at least will be familiar with concepts such as a united Ireland, joint sovereignty, some form of federalism, an independent Northern Ireland or the status quo.

Feeney doesn’t see a solution being a simple unitary state and suspects whatever arrangement is arrived at that Northern political self-interest will seek to maintain most power within the existing Northern Ireland geographical framework. They wouldn’t want to be denied the “gravy train”, he says. There is also the very large issue of what the Republic might think of constitutionally connecting with the North.

But Feeney is not totally cynical. He believes that Northern politicians and the British and Irish governments will have the “wit” to manage a situation that without careful handling could be rich for exploitation by purist nationalists and republicans – with a likely consequent backlash from unionists and loyalists.

This issue, perforce, will move up the political agenda, he says. “Politicians will have to think about it. At the moment they don’t have to think about it.”

To varying degrees that applies to most people on these two islands.

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