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After the census… December 12, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.

In some respects the figures released yesterday as regards demographic changes in the North are perhaps the most important piece of news that we’ll hear as regards the future shape of the island now or for some time to come. The communal identity figures are telling. Above and beyond formal identification with a given religion the narrowing distance between those from a Catholic (45%) or Protestant (48%) background – and in relation to the last figure the dip below 50 per cent from the last census (53%) is hugely significant. Consider the overall change since the establishment of Northern Ireland.

Now, as important are the national identity figures. Perhaps in some ways more important.

Of those questioned, 40% said they were British only, with the remaining 8% choosing British along with another one of the identities, such as British and Irish or British and Northern Irish.
A quarter of the population defined themselves as Irish only, while 21% said they were Northern Irish only.

This suggests a dislocation between religious background and political/national identity – and yes, this dislocation may be across all communities and party support, though only to a limited degree in most instances. Note the fracturing that occurs in relation to Irish national identity. It will be useful if the figures released allow us to burrow into those figures to cross match against religious background.

But be that as it may it suggests a number of things. Firstly that a united Ireland isn’t about to happen tomorrow, secondly that in terms of communal identity that which is British or ‘British and…’ is arguably more solid than that which is ‘Irish’ – and it’s difficult to quite work out how to map the communal identity onto voting patterns for SDLP and SF. Thirdly that unionism, much more so than nationalism and Republicanism has to come to terms with that fracturing for the basic reason that Unionism is still the predominant force, is still more closely wedded to the functional status quo (vastly closer links to the UK than to the RoI) and it is the one with potentially the most to lose – from its perspective.

The dynamics behind the figures are inexorable, not necessarily pointing towards a traditional United Ireland, at least not for some time to come, but certainly pointing towards change. That this change is unpredictable, in that it is unclear what shape any future dispensation might take, whether federalised, semi-autonomous or with some sort of at present unclear structural links East and South, is irrelevant. Something will happen along those axis and will tend to shift away even from the current GFA/BA status quo, even if it is simply, in the shorter to medium term a deepening of that status quo.

In that respect suddenly SF’s approach seems almost prescient, laying the ground work for shifting towards – at least in part – their chosen goal. They may never achieve that goal, but they’re pushing the ground in the general direction of it. But the response of the DUP and other parties seems much more leaden. Sure, we had the rhetoric displayed at the recent DUP conference, but somehow that evaded rather than engaged with the issue, and for all the talk that it is impossible (at least in the present context) for SF to reforge itself as a party that can attract unionism to its political programme, or perhaps more accurately unionists, much the same can be said of the DUP as regards nationalists.

Yet look at the figures and it is evident that both, and all other parties, must ultimately come to some sort of accommodation with demographic realities. And one stark reality is that of a Catholic and Nationalist (and Republican) population that will almost unquestionably seek stronger North South links. These may well fall short of a UI, at least in the medium term (though it would be interesting to see if certain economies of scale and so forth operate to enable a transition to such an end), but they’re going to be sought. And this has implications not just for the polity in Northern Ireland but also for the Republic.

But as noted above perhaps the main questions lie with Unionism itself. In 1920 there was a sense that the partition of the island would be if not quite temporary at least relatively short-lived, at least in the perception of unionism and leading unionists. Whether that was a rhetorical hope that sheer facts on the ground crushed into nothingness even before it was articulated is moot. That was the sense of what was happening. Yet almost a century later we can see that while the situation has altered and significantly there’s little sign of partition ending tomorrow.

I have to add another thought. A cri-de-couer that one often hears is the idea that there’s a stable middle ground that if only, if only the likes of the SDLP and the UUP could work together could be found. Looking at the figures above in relation to all aspects of the question I wonder if that’s true. It seems to me that there’s considerable fragmentation and differences in the outlook of citizens in the North, that in some ways given that fragmentation it is little short of remarkable that an agreement was reached at all. But then again, what is the surprise? Perhaps it is inevitable that after the best part of a century in a contested polity there would be dislocation and fracturing of identity.


1. CL - December 12, 2012

Some years ago in NYC I heard Tim Pat Coogan make the case that since the Catholic birth rate in NI was higher than the Protestant unification was inevitable. Niall O’Dowd who regards Tim Pat as Ireland’s leading hilstorian was also pushing this notion. This was in the context of garnering support for the GFA. The census figures put this type of foolishness to rest.


2. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - December 12, 2012

Mention of Niall O’Dowd, self-proclaimed spokesman for 40 million Irish-Americans brings me to this cracker from him last week:



CL - December 12, 2012

‘O’Brien was perfect for that era, a buccaneer capitalist with no special family ties to the notorious insider world of Irish business.’-O’Dowd.
And O’Brien got his start too without any insider ties to the Irish political system.


CL - December 12, 2012

Unlike, say, oligarchs in backward places like Russia who because of political connections were able to appropriate public property at knock-down prices.


3. Blissett - December 12, 2012

Ian Parsley, who i generally think is a bit of a wally, said of the census ‘We are all minorities now.’ I thought that quite succint. Other than that its hard to take anything huge from it.


4. gabbagabbahey - December 12, 2012

“This suggests a dislocation between religious background and political/national identity – and yes, this dislocation may be across all communities and party support, though only to a limited degree in most instances. Note the fracturing that occurs in relation to Irish national identity. It will be useful if the figures released allow us to burrow into those figures to cross match against religious background.”

I graphed the data released on religious background and national identity here: http://hardcorefornerds.tumblr.com/post/37736888160 and found it quite striking. The cross-tabulations which would allow direct comparison of the two aren’t going to be released in this tranche of results, but across virtually all the local government areas ‘Protestant’ and ‘British’ percentages match (99% correlation); similar for Catholic and Irish – although they still correlate almost perfectly, a sizeable – and constant in proportional terms – section of Catholics don’t choose Irish identity. (Conversely, there’s a partial correlation between ‘Religion not stated’ and Irish identity)

What I found most interesting, however, was that the ‘Northern Irish’ figure didn’t correlate with anything – it’s essentially flat from Newry to Carrickfergus. Although since you could choose multiple options, ‘British and Northern Irish’ was most popular in more Protestant areas, and ‘Northern Irish only’ more popular in Catholic ones – obvious enough really, but it’s still an odd ‘identity’ in terms of who it represents, quite appropriately perhaps.


5. Joe - December 12, 2012

“In 1920 there was a sense that the partition of the island would be if not quite temporary at least relatively short-lived, at least in the perception of unionism and leading unionists.”

I don’t get that WBS. Did you mean to say “at least in the perception of nationalism and leading nationalists”?


Martin Savage - December 12, 2012

The 6 million dollar question- wouldn’t this have happened naturally anyway, Troubles or no? 100 years after partition a catholic majority will vote for a united Ireland


shea - December 12, 2012

in brass taxes more than likely but as has been brought up on this board in the last few days ‘what type of united ireland’ that will probably be the fudge for the next few decades.


WorldbyStorm - December 12, 2012

Them too Joe, I don’t think anyone in 1920 expected partition to last as long as it did. I think Carson and even Craig felt that partition wouldn’t be permanent , though I can’t recall what sort of timescale they put on it.


Joe - December 13, 2012

That’s interesting. I wasn’t aware of that. What did they think would happen? What were they hoping for? Any historians out there who can tell us a bit more about this?


WorldbyStorm - December 13, 2012

I think their sense, at least amongst some leading Unionist politicians, not sure how widely felt the sentiment was amongst the population, was that with the South still largely within the Empire a UI in some form under those structures was largely inevitable and would occur at some point in the future be it the 40s or whenever. Certainly I don’t think their sense was that partition was permanent.


FergusD - December 13, 2012

From a BBC WWW site “Edward Carson viewed partition as a failure and he resigned the leadership of the Ulster Unionists in 1921”. Carson was an Irish Unionist, not an Ulster Unionist so indeed for him partition was a failure. Perhaps he also had a premonition of what kind of entity NI would be, with its troubled relationship to GB, troubled even for Unionists really. As BICO used to say, NI was neither one thing or the other, fully in the UK or out of it.


Dr.Nightdub - December 13, 2012

If that’s true about BICO, they were just channelling Michael Collins: “It has become merely an inferior Lancashire. Who would visit Belfast or Lisburn or Lurgan to see the Irish people at home? That is the unhappy fate of the North-East. It is neither English nor Irish.” (A Path To Freedom)

WbS, the idea that partition would only be temporary predated the Govt of ireland Act – back around the time of the third Home Rul bill, there was a lot of to’ing and fro’ing over whether the north would be excluded temporarily or permanently, and whether 4, 6 or 9 counties would be excluded. But by Jan. 1922, Craig was certainly adamant that partition was for ever: four days after signing the first Craig-Collins Pact, he said he would have “never given in to any arrangement of the boundary which leaves our Ulster area less than it is under the Government of Ireland Act.”

Later, in the summer of 1922, Collins sent this dingbat Walter Mitty type named McNaghten up north to find evidence that there was anti-partition feeling among leading Unionists. They basically laughed up their sleeves at him, told him what he wanted to hear (“Oh no, OF COURSE partition needn’t be permanent”) but then stressed the need for northern nationalists to drop abstentionism and take their seats in the NI Parliament. Collins never even circulated McNaghten’s report to the rest of the Provisional Government.


WorldbyStorm - December 13, 2012

Probably sensibly. I’m not suggesting Craig didn’t want partition to last as long as it could, but from what I’ve read the sense was that it wouldn’t be permanent and might fade out later in the century. I’ll have to try and find some quotes.


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