Northern Census indicates Seismic Shift

Recent statistics emerging from Northern Ireland indicate seismic demographic changes have occured in the state.

People from Catholic backgrounds are estimated to outnumber people from Protestant backgrounds for the first time since the Partition began a century ago. Northern Ireland was founded under the Anglo-Irish treaty, signed between the Government of the First Dáil and the Lloyd George Government (facing pressure from the Ulster Unionist parliamentary constituency to protect the Union). The State is undergoing an intense period of reckoning with its identity and historic origins. Having undergone a tense two decades of a tenuous peace process in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the North remains politically volatile. Sinn Féin is the current largest party. Despite these political developments, more controversial ‘peace’ walls straddle the boundaries between working-class Catholic and Protestant communities than ever before, with the number of such walls having doubled between 1995 and 2005, as reported by the New Statesman in 2007, indicating that political and religious division still exists between both communities.

The North is still largely segregated between Catholic and Protestant, and the scars of the Troubles remain fresh for many. The State spent several decades of the 20th Century marginalising its Catholic minority, implementing discriminatory legislation designed to ensure communities remained impoverished, such as preferential housing policies, gerrymandering of electoral constituencies, and routine civil rights violations. Evidence of such discrimination can be found in Census data, economic studies, and historical research on the poverty and political marginalisation experienced by the Catholic community prior to the outbreak of the Troubles.

Historical evidence indicates that the State implemented social and economic policies that were sectarian and had an empirically negative impact on the Catholic community. For example, statistics relating to the provision of council housing, homelessness, and general welfare indicate that the Catholic community was at a severe socioeconomic disadvantage. 

The 1971 Census further exposes disparities from the era, as unemployment among Catholic men was almost three times higher than that of their Protestant peers. Legislation from the time only allowed the head couple of a household to vote, while their grown up children could not. This meant that working-class Catholics who still lived at home, either because they could not afford to buy or rent their own, or had been discriminated against on housing lists, were effectively disenfranchised.

With Catholics now outnumbering Protestants, and more people than ever voting across traditional sectarian lines, the region appears to stand on the precipice of momentous change. The recent Ireland’s Future conference hosted party leaders from both sides of the border, although few prominent Unionists were in attendance. 

An Tánaiste Leo Varadkar spoke at the event, calling for a peaceful, democratic, and conciliatory approach to Irish reunification. He called on proponents of independence to create a dream of Irish Unity that would not be someone else’s nightmare. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald echoed a similarly solidaristic and egalitarian sentiment, calling for such a society to be a ‘home for everyone’ on the island, and for an end to ‘us-versus-them’ discourse, which in her view undermines the prospects of creating conducive conditions for a viable and cohesive society.

Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, was recently quoted in the Belfast Telegraph, stating that he hoped the respectful and sober atmosphere following the recent passing of the Queen would create 'goodwill, and there is going to be new impetus put into negotiations between the UK and the EU in regards to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and a change in language I think.' Beattie's comments indicate that some leaders in the Unionist community are increasingly open to dialogue and reconciliation. Unionists view Northern Ireland's position in the U.K. as an integral aspect of their political and cultural identity, and often cite economic ties between our two islands as an important benefit of keeping the North in the U.K.

Political Unionism historically represented the views and interests of the Protestant community, who feared discrimination in a Catholic-majority island. Historic Unionist leaders such as Edward Carson and James Craig used the slogan: 'Home Rule is Rome Rule' to articulate the fears felt by many Protestants that they would become a marginalised and persecuted minority in a predominantly Catholic society, and that the U.K. would protect the achievements and way-of-life that they had worked hard to build in Ireland. Unionism views the bond between Ireland and Britain as an important and profound link featuring numerous beneficial cultural, artistic, industrial, and commercial ties, traditionally emphasising the intimate relationship between our two neighbouring islands.

Northern Ireland marked its centenary last year, as an uncertain future trajectory lies ahead. Differing accounts of the historically colonial relationship between Ireland and Britain have produced diametrically opposed ideological narratives, thus rendering Irish Nationalism and Ulster Unionism difficult to reconcile in a peaceful and harmonious manner. The fallout from Brexit, Sinn Féin taking office, demographic shifts, and sporadic outbursts of violence and unrest all present challenges and opportunities, and have resulted in renewed vigour in the quest for the answer to the question of Irish unity.