Focusing on religious figures depresses many who want to see politics move beyond a sectarian headcount but is legitimate given the basis on which NI was founded
The most dramatic finding of the Northern Ireland census results released today is crudely simple: Catholics now outnumber Protestants in a part of the UK whose boundaries were drawn in 1921 to ensure a hefty Protestant majority.
But beneath that simple headline lies buried a plethora of other complex information – not that much of it is any more encouraging for unionist leaders who for years have failed to comprehend, much less successfully address, the reasons why support for unionist parties has dramatically fallen.
The focus on religious figures depresses many in Northern Ireland who want to see politics move beyond a simple sectarian headcount. But it is a legitimate focus – even if it requires considerable context so as not to be spun as representing something which it does not.
It is impossible to dismiss the significance of a Catholic majority when Northern Ireland’s boundaries were chosen so as to preclude that possibility. But it is impossible to understand what this tells us without realising that religion is no longer a simple signifier of constitutional preference in the way that it did a century ago.
Therefore, the constitutional significance of even an outright Catholic majority of more than 50% (the BBC NI online report initially erroneously read ‘Majority of NI people from a Catholic background’) – would not be what it would have been in 1921.
In fact, what these figures show is that both Catholics and Protestants are minorities – just as in politics where unionists and nationalists are now minorities with the unaligned holding the balance of power in the middle. The figures also show that Northern Ireland is continuing to become more diverse (almost one in ten practice a non-Christian religion) and more secular – those who are irreligious now make up about 20% of the population.
For politicians, the key religious statistics published today are not those which show an individual’s current religion, but those which show the religion they were brought up. That is because political debates are not around transubstantiation or justification by faith alone, but about communal upbringing as a cipher for likely political views.
While current religion shows Catholics at 42.3% and Protestants at 37.3%, including ‘religion brought up in’ shows communal backgrounds of 45.7% Catholic to 43.5% Protestant (in 2011, those figures were 48.4% Protestant, 45.1% Catholic).
The main reason for this is fairly obvious; the Protestant population is older and so there are fewer Protestant births and more Protestant deaths.
While the religious shift will be what this census is remembered for, other figures are more politically significant. The census shows that a dramatic increase in those holding an Irish passport – a third of the population now has Irish passport. That is an obvious impact of Brexit and as such is of limited constitutional significance; many unionists have availed of their right to an Irish passport purely as a convenience – it says much more about their desire to skip a long airport queue than it does about how they would vote in a border poll.
Other figures contain little reason for ambiguity. There has been a dramatic drop in those describing themselves as British – either solely or along with other identities; that figure is now 42.8%, down from 48.4% a decade ago. That makes unspinably grim reading for unionists.
Those who describe themselves as Irish is up from 28.4% a decade ago to 33.3%. However, the more ambiguous Northern Irish identity also continues to increase – up from 29.4% to 31.5%.
The great disruption there isn't differential birth rates or emigration, but the discombobulation of Brexit which destabilised the status quo in a way few of its unionist backers can either understand or admit.
Northern Ireland’s population is altering, and not only in ways which are simple for those obsessed by sectarian headcounts to comprehend. One person in 15 is now born outside the UK and Ireland; in 1851 it was one in a thousand. Islam is now the largest non-Christian faith, with about 0.5% of the population as adherents.
As the sociologist Prof Katy Hayward said this morning ahead of the results: “It is a complicated picture and it would be important not to read over any one particular category a particular political aspiration, particularly when it comes to constitutional change”.
There is a kneejerk sectarian laziness to suggesting these results mean a border poll now must be held, just as there is fingers-in-ears stupidity in the claim it doesn’t matter in any way.
Northern Ireland is changing in innumerable ways, and those political ideologies which can best adapt to that fact will thrive; those which seek to deny reality will become extinct.