Unionist-dominated Ulster is over: Are we on a demographic march towards Irish reunification?

Major demographic consequences of the Troubles are the brain drain from all communities and the reinforcement of voluntary segregation

6 into 26 won’t go! I saw that painted on a Belfast gable wall when I was a boy. Being a competitive little lad I thought the graffiti author didn’t understand fractions. After all six goes into 26 “four and a third times”. Of course, the statement was not about division, where it may have been correct according to certain schoolteachers, but about partition.

The six counties of Northern Ireland could not, would not, and should not fit into the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland. Monarchist, Protestant, English-speaking people could not live in the Republican, Catholic and Gaelic nation-state. The statement was a slogan – a word derived from the Irish for “war cry”. It proclaimed an “impossibility”.

Irish reunification was long deemed impossible. For many it still is, especially because of the long conflict – or war or “Troubles” – between 1966 and 2005, or 1968 and 1998. The dates and names are contested. Yet reunification is now certainly possible, indeed highly probable, though not inevitable – at least, not yet.

But even those who want it to happen are not prepared – at least not adequately prepared, even if they may think otherwise. That includes Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Irish Labour Party, the Greens, People Before Profit and others.


The Government of Ireland Act of 1920, the instrument of partition enacted by the Westminster parliament, was the most enduring gerrymander of the last century. With some truculence Ulster unionists accepted a six-county Northern Ireland rather than one consisting of all nine counties of Ulster. Their local leaders had made a strategic decision. In the words of James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, they would secure those counties they could control, and thereby create “a new and impregnable Pale”, behind which loyalists could withdraw and regroup to maintain the union with Great Britain.

That control has now been lost, however. The ramparts of the new Pale are long gone. Unionist control went in 1972 when the London government shut down the Northern Ireland parliament, which the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) had dominated for 50 years. The ramparts were the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the armed police force, and the B Specials, its armed reserve. The former was mostly Protestant; the latter, originally recruited from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), entirely Protestant.

The most famous Ulster unionist slogan is “no surrender”, still cried at the annual August and December parades of the Apprentice Boys over Derry’s walls – or Londonderry’s. The “boys” are nowadays mostly somewhat-matured men. The slogan means no surrender either to Irish Catholics or to illegitimate British power.

There have, however, been several unionist surrenders – as well as British betrayals. Ulster unionists parted with their Southern counterparts, who wanted all of Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom, or in the British empire or in the British Commonwealth. Southern unionists would have settled for “dominion status” for the entire island in 1917–18 so that they would have been part of a larger minority rather than the small one they became. They feared an Irish Republic, but they did not want partition. Ulster unionists preferred to leave Southern unionists behind rather than bolster them in a sovereign united Ireland. As retreating generals do, they cut their losses.

Ulster unionists had made a solemn covenant on “Ulster Day” in September 1912. In it they pledged loyalty to their brothers and sisters throughout Ulster. The covenant was signed by more than 235,000 men, with a matching declaration signed by nearly the same number of women. The three counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, however, had large Catholic and nationalist majorities. A nine-county Ulster would have meant, according to the census of 1911, a Protestant-to-Catholic ratio of 57 to 43 rather than the 66-to-34 ratio of what became Northern Ireland.

The UUP leadership’s “inner circle” effectively surrendered the unionists of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan to what became the Irish Free State. They might have had all of Ulster, and kept to their covenant, but then their demographic and electoral majority would have been highly unstable, and quickly reversible.

The British coalition government of 1918–22, made up of Conservative unionists and Liberal imperialists, and led by David Lloyd George, organised Ulster’s “downsizing”. The Ulster unionist elite were effectively allowed to pick their preferred Northern Ireland: six counties, four with cultural Protestant and unionist majorities – Antrim, Down, Armagh and Londonderry – and two without – Fermanagh and Tyrone. Unofficially unionists would call these six counties Ulster. Officially UK governments refused requests to rename Northern Ireland as Ulster, but they had no objections to the naming of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, or later to the Ulster Defence Regiment, or to “the Ulster Banner”.

Unionist-dominated Ulster is now over. A referendum in the North on Irish unity is likely at the end of this decade, to be followed by one in the South if the rules of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 are followed. That is because Northern Ireland’s tectonic plates have shifted. Its cultural Catholic population – those who are Catholic or come from a predominantly Catholic family formation – now outnumber cultural Protestants.

Since the last quarter of the 19th century such Catholics have mostly voted for nationalist parties with platforms that favour an autonomous or independent and united Ireland. Today the largest of these parties are Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Not everyone who votes Sinn Féin or SDLP will vote for Irish reunification if and when the Northern referendum happens. Like everyone with a vote they will want to know what is on offer and what the benefits and costs are, both for themselves and their families and for their peoples. But cultural Catholics will have a choice, and their votes will matter – with increasingly decisive importance over the rest of this decade. By 2030, as I shall try to show, the decision will be theirs to make.

The Alliance Party and the Greens, which refuse to register as either nationalists or unionists, and who identify as “others”, also have significant cultural Catholic members and voters; perhaps a majority have that background. Many of these voters will strongly feel the appeal of Irish reunification in a referendum, as will a distinct minority of liberal Protestants who identify with Alliance or the Greens.

Religious identity in NI

Look at the graphic above, which contains a series of figures. The lines on the graph show the percentages of the local population of the Six Counties who identify as Catholic, Protestant and other Christian, other religions, or as “no religion”, or “not stated”, or “none” over the 150 years since the first regular census. The black bar across the middle marks the 50 per cent line. It is easy to see that the proportion of Catholics in the Six Counties fell before partition in 1920 – partly because Catholics out-migrated from a hostile Belfast region.

It is also easy to see that the proportion of Protestants peaked around the second World War. By 2011, however, Catholics were poised to surpass Protestants in raw numbers, and as this book goes to press almost certainly did so in the past decade. Today, a century after Northern Ireland’s invention, its founders’ descendants can no longer hold it on the strength of their own numbers.

This change has not occurred because Catholics quickly managed to “breed” at the rate popes are said to recommend, while Protestants did not. Catholics had a higher average birth rate than Protestants, but that did not matter before 1971–81. Under the domination of the Ulster Unionist Party in the old Stormont parliament between 1920 and 1972, life was significantly more unpleasant, on average, for Catholics than it was for Protestants. And deliberately so. As David Trimble put it, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize at Oslo with John Hume in December 1998, “Ulster unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics”.

Catholics emigrated from this cold house far more than Protestants, proportionally and absolutely. Trimble continued: “Northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down.” Whether these fears of combustion were justified, and whether they remain so, is the subject of unresolved controversy. What did end eventually was disproportional Catholic out-migration.

The demographic ratios of the two major groupings changed slowly after 1972, partly because comparative rates of migration changed. Educational reforms by the post-war Labour government in London created a graduate class of Catholics by the 1960s that would spearhead the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. Political reforms made a difference, eventually, after the imposition of direct rule by Great Britain in 1972.

So did the MacBride campaign, begun among the Irish diaspora in the United States under the auspices of the former Irish foreign minister Seán MacBride, which begat the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act of 1989, enacted by Margaret Thatcher’s government to replace the failed act of the same name of 1976. The draft bill was effectively redrafted by Belfast-born legal scholar Prof Christopher McCrudden, then lead adviser on law to Kevin McNamara MP, the British Labour Party’s frontbench spokesman on Northern Ireland. The Fair Employment Act proved to be remarkably effective legislation. Among other accomplishments it made cultural Catholics more likely to stay in Northern Ireland.

Did unionists lose their demographic majority for reasons beyond those of a partly reformed and therefore better Northern Ireland, higher Catholic birth rates, and eventually lower Catholic migration? Other factors have also been suggested.

Protestants have been more likely to leave to take university degrees in Great Britain – and not return – especially when university tuition was free. It is a plausible story, but it is difficult to estimate the flows and their endurance. What is clear is that Northern universities have cultural Catholic pluralities or majorities in their student bodies.

Another suggestion is that unionists left disproportionally because of the war officially launched by the Provisional IRA in 1971. That explanation is also difficult to evaluate, and faces a decisive objection: more Catholics died than Protestants in the conflict, proportionally and absolutely, and more violence and injuries took place in Catholic-majority districts of Northern Ireland. So if violence induced emigration then, at the margin, Catholics should have been more likely to leave than Protestants. Many Catholics did leave because of violence by the B Specials, the RUC, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the British army, and loyalist militia, as well as violence by republicans on their front doorsteps.

Whatever one’s opinions on these contested matters, the two most powerful demographic consequences of the conflict, euphemistically known as “the Troubles”, are agreed: the brain drain from all communities; and the reinforcement of voluntary segregation, sometimes because of intimidation. People with skills and higher-education qualifications were more likely to leave, and people who stayed became even more likely to live with their own. Mixed areas became unmixed. Sometimes they were forcibly unmixed. Some remixing is now taking place after 25 years of peace.

Extracted from Making Sense of a United Ireland, Should it Happen, How Might it Happen? by Brendan O’Leary, published by Sandycove on September 1st at €25.00