“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be,” Ophelia says in Hamlet. Change is hard-wired into the human condition and is often invisible to the naked eye, but – unusually – the Northern Ireland census returns show it happening right before our gaze.
A mirror is being held up to the Northern Irish state, and there is cause for hope in its findings. Not because one majority has been eroded by another, but because of the secular and middle ground’s rise and the appetite – apparent from passport figures – for EU membership.
Brexit appears to be the accelerant in driving change, although demographics and national identity are also factors. Figures show fewer people than before Brexit defining themselves as British-only, underlining the magnitude of the DUP’s hard border misstep.
Does it matter that Catholics now outnumber Protestants? Only in so far as it acts as another indicator that an inclination may exist for constitutional change. Equally, it is clear that the union can only continue with nationalist and non-aligned consent. Above all, the binary implied by the “two tribes narrative” of British versus Irish and of Protestant versus Catholic is obsolete.
If these results don’t jolt the DUP back into devolved government, it has no business being in politics. The party is staking its gamble on a second election this year to increase its mandate, but the take-home census message for Jeffrey Donaldson is: Stop obstructing and start constructing. The notion of British identity trumping everything is outed as a marginal concern, because the findings show Britishness becoming increasingly peripheral.
Identity was one of the most telling census results: 31pc defined themselves as British-only; 29pc as Irish-only; 19pc as Northern Irish-only; a whisker under 8pc were British and Northern Irish; while just under 2pc were Irish and Northern Irish. Contrast this with a decade ago when the British-only identity was 40pc, Irish-only was 25pc and Northern Irish-only was 21pc.
The stand-out figure here is 31pc of the population who identified as British-only – a substantial drop. Again, change is visibly taking place.
If identity is a fluid construct, does it function more effectively within the UK, Ireland or Northern Ireland? In the context of Northern Ireland, the ‘Orange card’ is in play currently and Stormont has been stalled. Just for a change. Consequently, alternatives on the table are union or unity – Stormont’s inactivity forces people to look elsewhere.
Northern Ireland has been pounded by the fallout from Brexit. If people want to be readmitted to the European Union – and the middle ground does, irrespective of party affiliation – union with Britain is an obstacle, whereas Irish unity means automatic EU membership. Take a bow, Enda Kenny.
The UK government seems spectacularly uninterested in accommodating any concerns other than the most hard-line unionist, causing faith in Northern Ireland as a polity to collapse. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is the poorest region of the UK. Inevitably, some are now wondering if they could expect improved outcomes within the Republic.
These census returns cannot be downplayed as immaterial to the status quo of the union. Northern Ireland was engineered with a built-in Protestant majority – it’s why Ulster was truncated to six counties – but a century after its creation, that majority is no longer in the driver’s seat. Volatility caused by Brexit is also steering the direction of travel.
Society in general is becoming more secular. In 2011, the breakdown was 48pc Protestant, 45pc Catholic and 5pc no religion. Today, it stands at 42pc Catholic, 37pc Protestant and 19pc no religion – that no-religion statistic will rise. These shifts have political implications.
While religious affiliation does not guarantee electoral habits, religion has been a voting signifier for most of the polity’s history. After all, religion was weaponised by the founders of Northern Ireland. Why does this matter in the increasingly secular 21st century? Because it indicates where people may stand on the constitutional question.
Someone who defines as Catholic or Irish or Northern Irish may or may not vote for unity – but they are persuadables. Catholic population growth doesn’t mean inevitable reunification, but it indicates an electorate open to examining the evidence and making an informed choice. That said, Alliance voters will be the deciding factor in constitutional outcomes.
Let’s turn now to the passports issue, which acts as a marker of appreciation for what the EU club can offer. Numbers holding an Irish passport over the past decade have risen noticeably, while those with a British passport have collapsed. People who now hold an Irish passport either solely or jointly are up from 375,800 in 2011 to 614,300 in 2021, while UK only passport-holders are down from 1.7 million to 1 million. Pragmatism is trumping ideology for at least some of the traditional unionist population.
Again, this pragmatism should act as a wake-up call to the DUP. A majority of MLAs and parties in Stormont wants the protocol to be afforded time and space to work; but the Johnson administration and the Truss government, have allowed a minority within Northern Ireland’s political class to interfere with democracy. Checks and balances exist against what has been described as the tyranny of majoritarianism, and this is right and proper, but cross-party support must count. Otherwise, democracy is undermined and the population disengages. It is happening already. The British government’s take-home census message must be to accept its responsibilities – stop listening to poisonous, anti-protocol whispers.
Changes reflected in the census were foreshadowed by the 2017 and 2022 elections – in the former when unionism lost its majority, and in the latter with the rise of Alliance, now standing at 20pc but well-positioned to continue its advance. Sinn Féin also became the biggest party in that plebiscite. The past decade has delivered seismic change in Northern Ireland, but most repercussions have been caused by the backwash from that Brexit vote six years ago.
While Ophelia’s quote is a “who knows where we’ll end up?” observation, it is evident that tectonic plates are shifting in real time. Change can be embraced, criticised or controlled to a certain extent – but it cannot be avoided. Time to make plans.