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Demographics or democracy?

JM Thorn

25th February 2002

A flurry of nationalist excitement greeted a recent feature in the Independent by its Ireland correspondent David McKittrick on the changing demographic profile of the Northern Ireland population.  This feature which was flagged up by a front-page headline proclaiming "Protestants losing majority in Northern Ireland", presented what it claimed to be statistical evidence showing that the Protestant majority had "dwindled to no more than a few percentage points.”  This bold assertion was based on the anonymous claims of three statisticians and demographers from the Queen’s University in Belfast.  Two of these sources estimated the current Catholic proportion of the population at 46 per cent and 45 per cent respectively, and added on to these figures the further 4 per cent of the population defined as "other".   The third source gave "a private opinion" that Protestants may make up just 49 per cent.  One of these “experts” claimed that "If the Protestant majority has not already disappeared, it will do so within a few years."

The underling assumption of such claims is that an increasing Catholic population in the north will produce political and constitutional changes that ultimately result in a united Ireland.  This is certainly the interpretation of changing population statistics that is promoted by nationalists and republicans.  One of the most consistent propagators of this idea has been the Sinn Fein aligned newspaper, the Andersonstown News.  In an article commenting on McKittrick’s feature in the Independent one of its columnists claimed that the census figures due to be released later in the year would “tell a tale of a growing Catholic population that will soon hold the balance of power”.  This is despite the fact McKittrick’s feature was not based on prior knowledge of what the census figures will show.  Undaunted by such details the columnist went on to assert that unionists domination was now a distant memory  “as unionists, especially the business classes, ponder their place in a United Ireland.” The article concluded that a united Ireland will “be a real possibility” in the next 15-years as “statistics now seem to back the theory up”.

In reality there is no such theory and no such statistics. It is merely a myth constructed to cover the political collapse of republicanism.  As there is nothing in the Good Friday Agreement that points towards the ending of  partition, the illusion of some other mechanism that pushes things in that direction must be created.  This why Sinn Fein has latched onto the idea of demographics, playing up the idea that a young vibrant nationalist population will outstrip an ageing decrepit unionist population, and through force of numbers achieve a united Ireland. Some have even been so bold to place a date on a united Ireland - 2016 - the hundredth anniversary of the Easter uprising.  What a neat scenario, it all seems so logical and historically inevitable.

The only problem is that the premise it is based on is totally false.  The most obvious flaw is nationalist support for the Good Friday Agreement.  Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein support the Agreement but it explicitly rules out the idea that a nationalist majority in the north would be enough to bring about a united Ireland. Under its terms, constitutional change can only come about with the consent of unionists irrespective of whether they are a majority or a minority.  Also, there is no evidence that unionist are accommodating themselves to the looming prospect of a united Ireland.  On the contrary, it is nationalist politicians through their participation in the institutions of the Agreement, particularly the Stormont Assembly, who are accommodating themselves to the continued existence of the northern state.  Are they likely to give up their privileges to achieve a united Ireland?

The second major flaw in the idea that demographic change will produce political change is that the available statistics do not project a nationalist majority in the north.  Despite anonymous speculation there is no evidence that Catholics will overturn the Protestant majority.  None of the demographic predictions in the McKittrick article are made on the basis of actual statistical data.  Indeed, the data that does exist points to the persistence of a significant Protestant majority.  For example, in the Continuous Household Survey for the year 2000-01 gives the Catholic population at 42 per cent, Protestants at 53 per cent, and others at 5 per cent.  This is the same as the last census figures in 1991, which estimated a 42 per cent Catholic population.  While the latest census figures made show and increase in the Catholic population, it is unlikely to be on the scale of that predicted by the experts quoted in McKittrick’s article.  This more cautious estimate is also backed up by the annual census of schoolchildren and the Labour Force Survey.  These figures, and estimates for numbers or retired people, indicate the Catholic proportion of the population to be close to 44 per cent.   The McKittrick article made much of the figures for schoolchildren which show pupil numbers as 173,000 Catholic, 146,000 Protestant and 22,000 "other".  However, his article omitted to say that 98 per cent of this "other" category were in the more Protestant state-controlled schools rather than in Catholic schools.  This group is far more likely to come from a secular unionist background than a nationalist one.  The figures also show that while Catholics may make up the majority of school pupils as a whole, in the primary sector they are a minority.  While the statistics currently available point to a rise in the Catholic population, it will not be great enough to overturn the Protestant majority.  In the longer term they point to a more stable Northern Ireland population profile in which Protestants still constitute a majority, albeit a smaller one than in the past.

However, the main objection to the demographic argument is that it is thoroughly reactionary.  It assumes that people are born into fixed political allegiances from which they cannot break away.  Protestants will inevitably be unionists and Catholics will inevitably be nationalists, and as for the “others”, well they don’t count.  Politics is based not on ideology or programme but on communal mobilisation.   This is the logic that underpins the Good Friday Agreement.  However, rather than leading towards an ending of partition and division, as Sinn Fein would claim, it actually reinforces it by fostering more and more community polarisation.  The idea that Irish unity can built on the basis of one community defeating another is a dangerous illusion.  It is also a denial of the historical role Irish Protestants have played in the struggles or national independence and socialism.  In the demographic scenario such people have no role to play.  That Sinn Fein has latched on to such reactionary nonsense is yet more evidence of its political degeneration.



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