Are the Catholics taking over Northern Ireland (1)?

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.

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3 Responses to Are the Catholics taking over Northern Ireland (1)?

  1. John Bradley says:

    This article is not helpful. Has the time not come to cease describing situations in Northern Ireland in terms of Catholics and Protestants? This region must be the last in the EU where anyone cares whether you are a Catholic or a Protestant or neither! A tragic situation, particularly since these designations are no longer meaningful as useful indicators of attitudes to internal governance or constitutional change. The manner in which the constitutional debate in Scotland is crossing all kinds of social, religious and cultural backgrounds and focusing on economic and governance questions shows just how inward looking and provincial civil society is in Northern Ireland. And this provincialism is perpetuated by articles like this. If Northern Ireland wakes up on the morning of September 19th to be greeted by news of an independent Scotland, how prepared will it be to handle the consequences for their own isolated situation?

  2. Diarmaid Mac Aonghusa says:

    Imagine a situation where instead of dividing the children up at age 4 based on the particular flavour of Christianity their parents had we sent them all to school together. Maybe, if we did that they might see each other as friends and fellow citizens who might prefer to live in peace together rather than waving flegs in each others faces. I realise this is not going to fix everything but it would be a good starting point.

    Of course, as we know, this has nothing to do with religion (I would wonder how many of those involved in these protests attend church on Sunday) and has everything to with tribalism.

  3. Dominic Scott says:

    How on earth can you expect NI Catholics to give up their schools when you see the antics of ALL the self declared Protestant politicians? It has been their only legitimate vehicle for success in a ferociously gerrymandered sectarian statelet. Enough Catholics have made NI work for them that the Union is now safe in Catholic hands, as evidenced by the recent polls. But that leaves the Catholic and Protestant working class behind. The system continues to fail the youth of both groups, confining them to the reservations, teeming with single moms and drunken (or worse) teen dads. Their fate might be the fate of the American Native Peoples, except that there are more of them in proportion to the larger population.
    With one united, Twitter inspired, march to City Hall, the dispossessed youth of Belfast could command worldwide attention. They could highlight the plight of European youth in general, and show that they are prepared to band together to demand access to a decent life, similar to that of the Protestant and Catholic middle class. They might even feel emboldened to nail a list of demands to the door of City Hall, insisting on a concrete plan of action from all the political parties, pledging their allegiance to the party that offers the best deal.

    REAL People’s Democracy for a new age. Finally, Politics you can believe in!

    Failing this, NI is destined to the dustbin of history, with a failed statelet, peace agreement, executive, economy, infrastructure and vision. And a permanent and growing underclass of its most important asset-its youth.

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