Yesterday’s release of detailed Census figures for Northern Ireland makes for fascinating reading. You can find all the analyses here but one analysis which inevitably has attracted much attention is the religious split of the 1,810,863 people in Northern Ireland in March 2011. This is because of the historical association of Catholicism with Nationalism and Protestantism with Unionism. The figures for March 2011 show 817,385 Catholics and 875,717 Protestants and 117,761 “other”. Belfast and (London)Derry are now Catholic-majority cities, though overall, across the six counties of Northern Ireland, there is a Protestant majority of 58,332.
Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Catholics in Northern Ireland increased by 79,912 from 737,473 to 817,385. During the same period, the number of Protestants fell by 19,665 from 895,382 to 875,717. These changes took place over a decade. Taking the changes in the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, and dividing these in half would indicate that by the end of 2016, there will be 863,333 Catholics and 864,407 Protestants. A month or two later, Catholics would be in a majority, using this extremely crude extrapolation.
All of this assumes trends seen in the 2000s – more emigration and natural mortality with Protestants and more fertility and immigration with Catholics – continue, and although these trends may not continue, the experience of 92 years since Northern Ireland was created would indicate it was a safe bet that they will.
Of course it is raw and possibly very inaccurate to portray all Catholics as Nationalists and all Protestants as Unionists. In recent weeks, Unionist parties in particular have been keen to claim that some, maybe even a lot of, Catholics support the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, ahead of reunification. We have heard little from the other side, but commonsense would suggest that some, maybe even a lot of, Protestants might support reunification ahead of the union with Britain. Might instability and insecurity and an inevitable demographic trend actually accelerate reunification?
The figures are particularly interesting on here because of a hobby interest in the history of Ireland in the second two decades of the last century. What would the original stalwarts of Unionism, James Craig and Edward Carson make of a Northern Ireland today in which 45% were Catholics and 48% were Protestants? After all, the only reason that three of the nine counties in the province of Ulster were lopped off in 1920, was to create an artificial territory and subsequently, a country, where there was a significant majority of Protestants.
In 1911, there were 674,264 Catholics in the nine counties of Ulster and 837,509 and 69,923 “other” – Catholics 42.6% and Protestants 53.0% – and in 1920 when the Island was partitioned, this was deemed too significant a Catholic presence to guarantee Unionists a secure grasp on long-term power. And so a six-county Northern Ireland was carved out of Ulster, with those six counties having a population of 1,250,531 comprising 430,621 Catholics and 768,056 Protestants and 52,313 “other” – or 34.4% Catholics and 61.4% Protestants.
So what does this all mean for the future? Sinn Fein is already angling for a referendum on reunification, and the Good Friday Agreement upon which Northern Ireland’s position is today built, allows for reunification based on a majority in referendums on both sides of the Border, that is a majority in Northern Ireland and a majority in the Republic. The Good Friday Agreement binds both the British and Irish governments to implement that choice. It will be Autumn 2014 when Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom. Yesterday’s Census results have probably accelerated the prospects here for a referendum on the Border.
[Sources: Most of the religious splits in former Censuses are derived from the University of Ulster/Conflict Archive on the Internet here http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/ni/religion.htm
The 1911 Census for Ulster is taken from the 1911 Census held at Ireland’s National Archives - http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie%5D