A Protestant state for Protestant people? Not anymore

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Northern Ireland was designed just over a century ago as “a Protestant state for a Protestant people”, though unionists deny that this phrase was ever actually used by a Northern Ireland prime minister. Unionist politicians spoke of “the majority” as a shorthand which legitimised the dominance of the Protestant community.

The phrase can never be used in this sense ever again. The latest census shows that, for the first time, there are more Catholics than Protestants in the 1.9 million population of Northern Ireland. The change in the demographic balance is significant and is all the more important because it comes on top of others in the balance of power between the Protestant and Catholic communities, which is tipping it towards the latter.

The new census figures published yesterday show that there are 45.7 per cent of people in Northern Ireland with a Catholic background as opposed to 43.5 per cent who are Protestant or belong to other Christian faiths. In 2011, 48 per cent were Protestant and 45 per cent Catholic, but the majority/minority positions were expected to switch in the 2021 census, as has now occurred.

The figures also reveal other developments with important political implications, such as the sharp increase, compared to 10 years ago, of people holding an Irish passport, which rose 63.5 per cent to 614,300 or one-third of the population. Moreover, 500,000 of these hold only an Irish passport and not a British one, the steep rise accelerated by Brexit and Britain’s departure from the EU.

On the question of identity, the proportion of people who say that they are British only fell from 40 to 32 per cent, and the number who say they are Irish only rose from 25 to 29 per cent. The number who say Northern Ireland only was steady at 20 per cent.

It is easy to make too much or too little of these figures. They are often reported outside Northern Ireland as an over-simple guide to the likelihood of Northern Ireland joining the Irish Republic and ceasing to be part of Britain. But the consequences of the demographic changes encompass far more than the partition of Ireland between north and south.

Catholics and Protestants often refer to themselves as nationalists and unionists but religious identity does not necessarily determine attitudes to the union with Britain. Many Catholics do not want to join the Irish Republic, though Brexit, which was opposed by a majority in Northern Ireland in the 2016 referendum, has swayed many Catholics away from support for the union because they want to stay inside the EU.

Though the majority community for so long, Protestants were unable to monopolise political power after the start in 1968 of the civil rights agitation by Catholics against discrimination.

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“The Troubles”, in reality a low-level war, followed and only concluded with the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement in 1998. This abolished what many Catholics saw as “the Orange state”, introduced power-sharing at every level, and ended security and trade controls along the 300-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The agreement ended the violence, but Sinn Féin came to dominate nationalist politics in the north and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) did the same among unionists. Every shift in the balance between the two communities is microscopically examined and is usually contested and the two communities remain largely self-segregated.

Sinn Féin won more seats than the DUP in the Assembly elections last May and Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin deputy leader, is First Minister designate. However, the DUP will not allow the Assembly to meet until its objections to the trade barrier in the Irish Sea introduced through the Northern Ireland Protocol have been met.

Other demographic changes in terms of who lives where in Northern Ireland are important as well as the overall figures for religious allegiance or background. Protestants are increasingly concentrated in the north-east, according to anecdotal evidence, and are averse to buying houses even in up-market districts where there is a Catholic majority.

The census confirms fundamental developments in the political and religious composition of society in Northern Ireland – but the changes are complex and slow.

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