Concerns over looming Catholic majority in North raised in 1991

Northern Ireland archive: ‘Much depends not only on the level of the Catholic birth rate, but also on the level of emigration’ Northern office expert claimed

Warning on Catholic population growth anticipated former DUP leader, Peter Robinson’s recent speech at Queen’s University this year. Photograph: Queen’s University Belfast/PA

Warning on Catholic population growth anticipated former DUP leader, Peter Robinson’s recent speech at Queen’s University this year. Photograph: Queen’s University Belfast/PA

 

Current discussions on demographic change in Northern Ireland and the possibility of a Catholic majority in the near future are prefigured in previously confidential files from 1992 released today in Belfast by the Public Record Office.

In a note to officials, dated July 22nd, 1991, D A Hill of the Economic and Social Division of the Northern Ireland Office noted that in recent discussions on whether a simple majority should decide whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or the Republic, “there has been an underlying assumption that, at some point, the Catholic population would become a majority”. There was also a concern, he noted, that, as the Catholic population approached majority-status, “that fact would cause political turbulence”.

As a result, Hill asked a population expert, Edward Jardine whether, and if so, when the Catholic population would become a majority in Northern Ireland. From Jardine’s report, Hill noted that “it was the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s that there would be a Catholic voting majority by 2036. However, there had recently been a decline in the Catholic birth rate while the Protestant birth rate had remained broadly stable. The recent dramatic collapse of the birth rate in the Republic made a Catholic majority in the North less likely”.

“In practice”, Hill informed colleagues, “much depends not only on the level of the Catholic birth rate, but also on the level of emigration”. If there was to be a Catholic majority, it would not be “until well into the next [21ST]century”. In any case, he added, a simple Catholic majority of voting age would not mean a “voting majority for a United Ireland” as a part of the Catholic community “has a broadly Unionist outlook”. If a majority for a united Ireland were to emerge in the next 50 years, it would be – he believed – because a substantial part of the unionist vote had changed its views.

Responding to the debate on July 22nd, 1992, Ms Pat Ransford, another official, argued that there were a number of factors which might “tip the balance” towards a small Catholic majority in the early 21st century and possibly towards a majority in favour of a united Ireland. She noted, in particular, that migration patterns had changed, adding: “If measures which have been brought in to reduce discrimination and employment succeed, one might expect the differential to reduce further”. In addition, she felt that the underlying reason for current voting patterns needed to be considered further: “One hypothesis might be that Catholic support for unionism is partly explicable as adaptative survival behaviour – crudely put, ‘if you cannot beat them, join them’.”

The future, Ms Ransford concluded, was unpredictable but (anticipating former DUP leader, Peter Robinson’s recent speech at Queen’s University this year), “it does seem worth having some strategies that do not suppose that a possible majority for constitutional change early next century is totally remote as a possibility”. It is now estimated that a Catholic voting majority will emerge in the next decade.