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Census results deal blow to Sinn Fein

JM Thorn

23rd December 2002

Months, if not years, of speculation came to an end on Thursday 19th December when the results of the latest Northern Ireland census results were released.  Statistics on the age and gender profile of the Northern Ireland population released earlier in the year had not engendered much excitement.  However, these latest figures were the ones everyone was waiting for - the religious breakdown of the population.  Anticipation of the results was particularly high amongst nationalist politicians and commentators.  Newspapers such as the ‘Irish News’ and ‘Andersonstown News’ have filled column inches with predictions of a dramatic shift in the religious balance of the population and the political consequences that would flow from this.

The “demographic argument”

The underlying assumption was that the census results would reveal a rise in the percentage of Catholics and a fall in percentage of Protestants and point towards the inevitable emergence of a Catholic majority in the near future.  Following from this it was assumed that a Catholic majority would automatically mean a nationalist majority in the north, and that a nationalist majority would mean majority support for a united Ireland.  In this schema a united Ireland would be the logical and inevitable consequence of a growing Catholic and a declining Protestant population.  These are the essentials of the “demographic argument” that has been trumpeted by nationalists, and in particular by Sinn Fein, during the course of the peace process.  As they could point to nothing in the Belfast Agreement that pointed towards the ending of partition, they latched on the idea of population change as being the dynamic to bring about change.  They were shored up in this belief by a range of cheerleaders in the media who assured them that a demographic shift would be the “silver bullet” that ended partition.

Armed with such logical formula nationalists confidently awaited the latest census results.  Their level of anticipation was raised further when the release of the data was put back a few months.  This was interpreted as a sign that the results were bad news for unionists, the delay just another attempt to save David Trimble from embarrassment.  However, when the census figures were released it was nationalists who were disappointed.  The assumptions that had underpinned their speculation and neat political formulas proved to be illusory.  For the census figures revealed a population breakdown of 53 per cent Protestant and 44 per cent Catholic.  Although this represented a five per cent dip in the Protestant population from the last census ten years ago, the two percent rise in the Catholic population was less than expected.  On the basis of these results there is likely to be a Protestant majority in Northern Ireland for at least another twenty years.

It is interesting to note that this breakdown was arrived at after the initial question establishing religious identity gave a break down of 46 per cent Protestant and 40 per cent Catholic.  This left 14 per cent who did not define themselves in either category.  However the statisticians working for the British State (or rather their masters) decided in their wisdom that those who had rejected sectarian identification were not allowed to do so and this 14 per cent were split 7 per cent Protestant and 4 per cent Catholic to arrive at the 53/44 split.  This was done on the basis of one’s parents’ religion, what school one went to or even one’s address.  This left only 3 per cent who the British State could not pigeon-hole into a sectarian tribe, a clear demonstration, if one were needed, that a sectarian head-count is exactly that – sectarian.

The Facts

A closer examination of the census results, as amended, reveals what is really going on in terms of demographic change in Northern Ireland.  It is true that the Catholic population continues to grow faster than the Protestant; that there is a net inward immigration of Catholics; that the Catholic population is younger; and that the Protestant population is older and has a higher death rate.  However, despite these trends, the Protestant population still has a substantial majority.  The gap between two communities is estimated to be around 200,000.  In terms of the voting population the gap is even wider.  Currently 41 per cent of this population is Catholic.  On the basis of the latest census figures this percentage will only have risen to 46 per cent by 2021.  Even if you assume that all Catholics support a united Ireland, there still won’t be a majority for a united Ireland within the next twenty years.

Although there is a higher Catholic birth rate this is a trend that is long past its peak of the early eighties. Most of these people are currently enrolled in secondary schools where the current Catholic share of enrolment in 51.5 per cent.  However since the 1980’s the birth rates of the two communities have been converging.  In primary schools the Catholic share of enrolment is about half.  If birth rates continue to converge the Catholic percentage in primary schools is likely to fall back below 50 per cent.  This might mean that there would never be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland.  In the long term the census results may well point towards a stabilising of the religious balance of the population, with Protestants continuing to constitute a majority, albeit a smaller one than in the past.


The “demographic argument”, which has been put forward most enthusiastically by Sinn Fein, clearly has no basis in fact.  But even if it did, it is one that should be firmly rejected.  It is thoroughly reactionary and sectarian.  The basic premise is that religious background determines people’s political allegiances, and that their politics views are fixed from birth.  In this schema the objective is not to engage in political struggle or to win people over to a political position, but to outnumber the “other” community in order to impose your will upon them.  This is the crudest form of communal politics.

It also explicitly endorses partition by accepting that a united Ireland can only come about through a majority within the state of Northern Ireland voting for it.  This ignores the fact that the purpose of that state is to deny self-determination to the Irish people.  It has nothing to do with democracy and its structures cannot be used to produce a democratic outcome.  The Northern Ireland State exists, not because a majority of the people within it wants it to, but because Britain maintains it.  Without British support it would collapse.  Because Sinn Fein has accepted the Belfast Agreement and the idea that Britain is now a neutral observer, it is oblivious to central role the British State plays.  With imperialism out of the equation, the only thing left is the struggle between the “two communities”.  This is why Sinn Fein has degenerated so rapidly into communal politics.

Concepts such as demographic change or British neutrality are illusions that only lead to the adoption of reactionary political positions.  This has been epitomised by Sinn Fein’s enthusiastic embrace of communal politics and a neo-liberal economic agenda.  However the party’s claim, that this was necessary to bring about change, is becoming increasingly tenuous.  As time progresses the illusions in the capacity of the Belfast Agreement to bring it about are being gradually dispelled.  The census results are just another example of the disparity between illusion and reality.



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