Maybe the loyalist flag riots in Belfast 12 months ago weren’t so strange and unexpected after all. If you were a not very well-educated working class loyalist watching what was happening in Northern Ireland over the past decade or so you might have genuine reason for concern. To such a person it might look as though the Catholics were taking over the property.
Because many of the people reading this blog are Southerners who are not particularly well-informed about what is happening in Northern Ireland, let me spell this out by giving reasons for my contention under three different headings: demography, education and leadership.
One has to start with the 2011 census. This showed that the percentage of the North’s population from a Protestant background had slipped to 48.4% (from 53.1% in 2001), while those from a Catholic background had increased to 45.1% (from 43.8% in 2001). The 2011-2012 school census showed the change even more starkly: 50.9% of schoolchildren were then Catholic, 37.2% were Protestant and 11.9% were ‘other’.
In the words of Dr Paul Nolan, author of the Joseph Rowntree Trust/Community Relations Council’s superb Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Reports: “The identification of the Protestant population as the ‘majority’ no longer has empirical validity…The Northern Ireland that emerged [in 1921] had a Catholic population of 33% and the permanence of its minority status seemed guaranteed. The proportions stayed stable until the early 1960s, largely because of Catholic emigration, but the welfare state acted to mitigate Catholic deprivation and their numbers began to grow – with that came an unsettling of unionism.”
He pointed out that these growing Catholic numbers “have now made a unionist state impossible.” This is not at all the same as saying that Protestants will be voted into a united Ireland any time soon. The 2011 census question on national identity (which for the first time allowed respondents to opt for more than one nationality) showed that 40% considered themselves ‘British only’, 25% chose ‘Irish only’ and an interesting 21% chose ‘Northern Irish only’. Such subtleties were, of course, entirely lost on the Belfast flag rioters.
The educational picture only serves to highlight the differences between an increasingly confident Catholic middle class and a low achieving, low morale Protestant working class. Thus in 2010-11 66.2% of Catholic girls from non-disadvantaged backgrounds (i.e. not entitled to free school meals) got two or more A-E grades in their school-leaving A-level exams, compared to 13.4% of Protestant boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. Informal comparisons show that the former group are now among the highest achieving school-leavers in the whole of the United Kingdom, while the latter are among the lowest. Seven of the 10 wards with the lowest level of educational attainment in Northern Ireland (all in Belfast) are now in Protestant working class areas.
Then there is the poor quality of the leadership given to the Protestant and unionist population. The DUP’s failure to give this leadership is becoming clearer by the day, while Mike Nesbitt seems incapable of turning the UUP into anything other than a pale imitation (and limping follower) of Ian Paisley’s old, formerly hard-line party.
Paisley’s ill-advised television interview with Eamonn Mallie earlier this week, full of self-pity and recrimination against his long-time lieutenants Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, is only the latest example of this. As Liam Clarke of the Belfast Telegraph pointed out, his old man’s fury has in one broadcast destroyed the official DUP narrative of an inspired leader and a united party that delivered peace to Northern Ireland.
Over the past month we have seen Paisley’s successor, Peter Robinson, failing to move even slightly ahead of his followers by signing up to the very reasonable proposals from Richard Haass to begin to resolve the deadlock over flags, parades and dealing with the past. Having helped to trigger the loyalist flag riots in December 2012 with his anti-Alliance leaflet drop in East Belfast, Robinson then allowed the UVF, the Orange Order and marginal, toxic figures such as Willie Frazer and Jamie Bryson to set the agenda for what followed. Politically minded unionist friends despaired of the vacuum left by the leaders of the two main unionist parties in the wake of this sudden re-emergence of conflict. The effect, in Paul Nolan’s words, has been ‘a re-sectarianisation of politics.’ And not only politics, but a whole range of other elements in Northern Irish society, from community relations to sport.
The quality of leadership on the republican side could not have been more different. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had already shown extraordinary courage and skill in bringing the IRA to a position where they gave up their armed struggle (and their arms) for something that was not much more than was on offer over 30 years earlier: power-sharing with a weak Irish dimension. They have hardly put a foot wrong in recent years, with McGuinness in particular showing the kind of flexibility and statesmanship which have seen him grow into one of the most formidable political operators on this island.
And it is not only in politics that Catholics are leading. It is striking how many people from a Catholic background one sees in the most prominent positions across Northern society these days: in the law (chief justice Sir Declan Morgan and attorney general John Larkin); in the civil service (permanent secretaries Stephen Peover and Paul Sweeney – although they are currently the only two out of 12); and in higher education (Queen’s University Belfast’s new vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston). Even in business, traditionally a proud Protestant and unionist stronghold, most of the outstanding entrepreneurs seem to be from a Catholic background: people like Brian Conlon of First Derivatives, Peter FitzGerald of Randox Laboratories and Hugh Cormican of Andor Technology. [I notice that all the leaders I have mentioned are men. As one would perhaps expect in such a deeply conservative society, politics, the law, the civil service, higher education and business remain overwhelmingly male bastions].
I will return to this topic in a later blog. Its implications are enormous, but they are not necessarily the obvious ones that old-fashioned Catholic nationalists would hope for and old-fashioned Protestant unionists would contemplate with dread and terror. They might even include the coming nationalist majority being prepared to continue to live within the UK.