New light shed on prospect of Catholic majority in North

University report shows how future trends might affect fluid nature of sectarianism

In Belfast, the changes are ‘striking’: the report describes it as a ‘shared city, where the Catholic population is younger and more confident’. Photograph: Getty Images

In Belfast, the changes are ‘striking’: the report describes it as a ‘shared city, where the Catholic population is younger and more confident’. Photograph: Getty Images

 

It says much about Northern Ireland that the continued existence of sectarianism is not in doubt; instead the question, posed in report published today by Ulster University, is what should be done about it.

“We now have to ask if the capability exists to provide solutions to these problems or whether we must simply hope that with the passage of time they will somehow just go away,” the report states.

Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: A Review, by Prof Duncan Morrow, makes more than 50 recommendations – including the establishment of a specific government department to tackle sectarianism – which are based on extensive consultation with a range of sectors and on substantial analysis of statistical and other factors.

In so doing, the report sheds fresh light on changing demographics in Northern Ireland and how future trends might affect not only the fluid nature of sectarianism, but also questions of national identity.

Underpinning this is “a clear statistical trend towards a change in the religious minority-majority structure” of Northern Ireland and the “measurable trend towards a Catholic majority”.

‘Majority rule’

In this context, the 2011 census was a “demographic watershed”. For the first time, the proportion of the population declaring themselves as Protestant or brought up Protestant fell below 50 per cent: “In a society characterised by debates over ‘majority rule’, where consent by a majority underpins the legitimacy of the state, the absence of a religious majority is an important symbolic marker,” the report states.

There are other changes: only two of the North’s six counties, Antrim and Down, now have “significant Protestant majorities”, and only one – Lisburn – of its five official cities.

“Within a decade, Belfast will almost certainly have a Catholic majority,” it states; in effect, a majority Protestant Northern Ireland “is now restricted to the suburban area surrounding Belfast.”

This trend away from a Protestant majority “is likely to continue”. The main drivers of change are differing birth and death rates between the two communities, the effect of migration, and loss of affiliation, which is more pronounced in urban areas and in the east of Northern Ireland.

Both Queen’s and Ulster University have a majority of students from a Catholic background; conversely, 63 per cent of students who study in Britain do not return to Northern Ireland, and the report cites other studies which have suggested their numbers are disproportionately Protestant.

The report warns about extrapolating too much from these trends. “Translating statistics about religious background into clear consequences for politics and national identity is never straightforward.

Irish national identity

“It is evident from the data over many years that very few Protestants consider themselves to have an Irish national identity and that the vast majority of those who call themselves Irish also identify as Catholic.”

It also highlights a “significant growth” in the number of people calling themselves “Northern Irish” “as a distinct identity” and this is appears to be “shared to a significant degree” across the population.

“What is not yet clear is the extent to which ‘Northern Irish’ is a stable or shared category.”

In Belfast, the changes are “striking”: the report describes it as a “shared city, where the Catholic population is younger and more confident.”

This is particularly true in areas close to interfaces, and the report points out a difference in the profiles of Catholic and Protestant areas around the city’s so-called “peace walls”, even though both are among the most deprived in Northern Ireland.

This is particularly true in areas close to interfaces, and the report points out a difference in the profiles of Catholic and Protestant areas around the city’s so-called “peace walls”, even though both are among the most deprived in Northern Ireland.

‘Community decline’

“Catholic communities that are younger and poorer may experience restrictions on space and/or availability of resources . . . older Protestant communities, which are losing residents, may experience a sense of community decline, dereliction and abandonment.”

The report highlights the impact of the so-called “asymmetric dynamic” on politics: unionist politics, it says, often reflect the perception that Protestant areas face a reduction in the physical area of territorial control, the potentially expanding restriction of their area for community celebration regarding parades, flags and emblems, the perception of a growth in influence of feared enemies such as “republicans” and “dissidents” and a sense of cultural pessimism.

By contrast, nationalist politicians “appear to be more optimistic about future prospects”. In the absence of fears of further cultural loss, concerns are mainly over housing issues and any continuing evidence of residual discrimination.

In the context of demographic changes, the report states, “the narrative of ‘two sides of a wall may soon change into a narrative about growing and declining communities with different demands and real social impact”.

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