Elections expected to highlight demographic shifts in North

Focus will be on whether nationalist parties make gains at expense of unionists

The big focus will be on the orange-green tribal battle, particularly in the context of the demographic changes exposed by the 2011 census. That interest is heightened by  education statistics which show significantly more Catholics than Protestants in nursery, primary, second- and third-level education in the North. Photograph: Reuters

The big focus will be on the orange-green tribal battle, particularly in the context of the demographic changes exposed by the 2011 census. That interest is heightened by education statistics which show significantly more Catholics than Protestants in nursery, primary, second- and third-level education in the North. Photograph: Reuters

 

Politicians, pundits and academics will be closely observing the results of Northern Ireland’s local and European elections to determine if demographic changes are reshaping the political map.

These are the first elections since the 2011 census disclosed that there are just 54,000 more people from a Protestant background than from a Catholic one in Northern Ireland.

The results of tomorrow’s election for the North’s three European seats will provide a broad-sweep picture of the unionist-nationalist political breakdown in Northern Ireland but it is the outcome of the election to the North’s 11 new “super councils” that will deliver a more specific local picture.

In the last local elections in 2011, 46 per cent voted for unionist parties and 41 per cent supported nationalist parties. The big local focus in these elections will be Belfast City Council where nationalists have the majority of seats but Alliance holds the balance of power. There will also be scrutiny of whether nationalists make further gains in western and southern parts of Northern Ireland and if unionists consolidate in the east.

Both unionist and nationalist politicians acknowledge that while there are 864,000 people (48 per cent) in Northern Ireland from a Protestant tradition compared with 810,000 (45 per cent) from a Catholic background that this almost certainly will not be directly paralleled in percentage terms in how unionist candidates fare against nationalist candidates.

The 2011 census disclosed how complex is the issue of identity in Northern Ireland. It showed that only one in four of the overall Northern Ireland population sees themselves as exclusively Irish while 40 per cent view themselves as solely British. Slightly over one in five of the population consider themselves as Northern Irish only.

A significant number of Catholics support the Alliance Party, which describes itself as “agnostic” on the union with Britain although many view the party as broadly unionist. In addition a new centrist party has emerged, NI21, which is pro-union but which has also attracted Catholic support, and which has majored on describing itself as Northern Irish first.

So, how parties such as Alliance, NI21 and the Greens fare in the European and local elections also will be viewed with great interest to see if it indicates that more Catholics are prepared to hold with the North’s union with Britain.

But there is no disputing that the big focus will be on the orange-green tribal battle, particularly in the context of the demographic changes exposed by the 2011 census. That interest is heightened by other information from education statistics which show there are significantly more Catholics than Protestants in nursery, primary, second- and third-level education in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Department of Education figures for 2010/11 show 120,415 Protestants and 163,693 Catholics in the North’s schools. Figures from 2009/2010 showed that at third level there were 20,995 students (59.3 per cent) from a Catholic background and 14,410 (40.7 per cent) from a Protestant background.

Most people in education are under-age obviously and can’t vote but the trend indicates that within a generation people from a Catholic background will be in a majority in Northern Ireland.

This election will illustrate how that trend is developing and whether it is having an impact on constitutional politics in Northern Ireland.