After the census… December 12, 2012Posted 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.