I wish our Taoiseach would shut up about a united Ireland until he has something sensible to say on the subject. According to the Irish Times he was at it again earlier this month, telling Fine Gael parliamentarians after a recent visit to the North that the “tectonic plates” of Irish politics are shifting as a result of Brexit and pointing to opinion polls showing increasing support for Irish unity.¹ [I must enter a caveat here: the current coverage of the North by the Irish Times is the weakest I have seen since I first went to Belfast as a journalist 40 years ago].
In fact the opinion polls, as usual, are all over the place. Earlier this month a Lucid Talk poll for the BBC showed that 45% of Northern Irish people questioned wanted to stay in the UK, while 42% wanted to join the Republic of Ireland.² In contrast, an Ipsos MORI poll last month for a Queen’s University research project led by the political scientist, Professor John Garry, found that just 21% of people would vote for Irish unity in the event of the UK leaving the EU.³ Whatever the differing figures, they add up to one thing: continued stalemate.
This is confirmed in a careful study of demographic statistics by my friend Dr Paul Nolan, a highly-regarded Belfast-based social researcher. An earlier remark on BBC television by Nolan that Catholics would probably overtake Protestants as the largest population group in Northern Ireland by 2021 had led to a wave of wild, self-serving speculation about nationalists becoming the Northern majority in the near future.
Nolan was actually saying something quite different. Warning that the actual figures would have to wait until the 2021 census, he said that “the demographic shift may allow for the Catholic population to overtake the Protestant one in terms of size, but it will not become a simple majority – that is, it will not increase to the point where it is over 50%. Perhaps more surprisingly for some, that increase in the size of the Catholic population will not translate in any simple way into nationalist votes.”
Nolan noted the significant growth of the Catholic population in recent decades. Between the 2001 and 2011 censuses the Catholic share of the population (in terms of community background) had grown from 43.8% to 45.1% while the Protestant share had fallen from 53.1% to 48.4%. Using school census statistics, he shows that among children and young people the picture is even starker: Catholic schoolchildren have been in a majority (50%-51%) for the past 18 years, with the proportion of Protestant children falling to 37% in recent years (children of other or no religion make up the remaining 13%).
The January 2018 NI Labour Force Religion Survey confirms a picture of rapid Catholic growth and Protestant standstill. There were 643,000 Protestants aged 16 and over in 1990; in 2016 this figure was slightly down by 3,000. However in this period the number of Catholics increased by 39%, from 440,000 to 610,000.
Because of the much greater preponderance of Protestants in the over 60 age group (57% to 35%), Protestants remain the largest group in the overall population: 44% to 42% Catholic (according to the Labour Force Religion Survey).
But the direction of travel is clear. Each year sees Protestants over-represented in the death statistics (by a 2:1 ratio) and Catholics over-represented in the birth statistics. “Northern Ireland is on its way to a situation where Catholics will outnumber Protestants. This will happen in two stages. First, the overall Catholic population will overtake the overall Protestant population. In the second stage, which will follow on inexorably, Catholics will outnumber Protestants among those of voting age.” Nolan forecasts that “it is at least possible that the first of these two stages will be reached by 2021.”
However for those who define themselves according to the archaic tribal category of CNR (Catholic Nationalist Republican), there is an important caveat before they start celebrating. Nolan finds that this demographic shift in favour of Catholics has not translated into any significant advance in the nationalist vote since the Good Friday Agreement. In the past 19 years the combined nationalist vote (that is, Sinn Fein and the SDLP taken together) has risen by a tiny 0.1% of a percentage point: from 39.7% in the June 1998 Assembly election to 39.8% in the March 2017 Assembly election. “In fact, the overall nationalist vote has been at a standstill, and rather than breaking through the 50% barrier it finds it hard to break the 40% ceiling.”
Nolan concludes that the political future of Northern Ireland may rest with another group entirely: the ‘Others’. According to the NI Statistics and Research Agency’s authoritative Pooled Survey, the combined total for those people declaring themselves ‘Other Religion/No Religion/None Stated’ grew by an astonishing 38% in four years (from 111,000 in 2011 to 152,000 in 2015). Although he stresses there is no straight ‘read across’ to voting patterns, it may also be significant that between the June 1998 and March 2017 Assembly elections, the parties that are clustered together as ‘Others’ (including Alliance, the Greens and People before Profit) increased their vote share from 9% to 16%.
“It was this group that held the balance of power in the EU referendum and pushed Northern Ireland into the Remain camp, and it will be this group which would hold the balance of power in any Border Poll, where the majority required [for unity] by the Good Friday Agreement was set at just 50% plus one,” Nolan points out.
Which brings me back to Leo Varadkar and why he should shut up about Irish unity. That unity isn’t coming any time soon, and if and when it comes it will be fiendishly complex because of the need to accommodate 900,000 unionists, the great bulk of whom will bitterly oppose such an outcome. Stalemate is the order of the next decade (and almost certainly longer).
Varadkar hasn’t got any record of thoughtful interventions on the North: before he became Taoiseach he rarely if ever voiced an opinion on it, except for (some might say opportunistically) playing a greenish card during the leadership contest by saying he wanted to bring back into use Fine Gael’s sub-title of the ‘United Ireland Party’.
Now he should concentrate on the immediate and extremely difficult job in hand, getting a good Brexit deal for Ireland and Northern Ireland. By all accounts he made a favourable impression during his recent trip to the North, visiting the Orange Heritage Museum (as well as launching the West Belfast Féile an Phobail programme) and telling a group of ‘civic unionists’ that he wanted Northern Ireland to get the “best of British, best of Irish” out of the Brexit negotiations. That’s exactly the message he should give to that beleaguered community, 44% of whom (according to the Queen’s University team’s poll) agree – in direct opposition to the DUP – that the North should have a special status after Brexit.
Varadkar is in the unique position for a Taoiseach of having very little baggage on the ‘national question’ and, what’s more, having become something of a celebrity to all sides. That was shown by the people lining up for photos with him at the Orange Museum. He should capitalise on such advantages to rebuild the bridges he once had to Arlene Foster and the paranoid people in the DUP (admittedly a difficult task).
He should resist the temptation to indulge in ‘green’ rhetoric which may be aimed at keeping the door open for a future government deal with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein’s road to unity via a hair’s breadth majority in a Border Poll is the road to ruin. A smart politician like Leo, surrounded by other smart politicians like Simon Coveney, Paschal Donohue and Simon Harris, must be able to come up with some better ideas once the Brexit imbroglio is put to bed. Until then, a really smart politician would heed the old Ulster-Scots advice to ‘haud yer wheesht’ about a united Ireland.
The quotes and statistics in this blog are from an unedited version of Paul Nolan’s article, the edited version of which appeared in the Irish Times on 19 June.
ENDNOTE: Next week I will be going on my annual cross-border summer walkabout, and trying to raise money for BCM (formerly Belfast Central Mission), who work with homeless and other vulnerable young people in Northern Ireland. This year I will be undertaking a ‘pilgrimage’ from Armagh to Croagh Patrick, walking through Monaghan, Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo across hills and along back roads and abandoned railway lines. If anybody in the North or Britain would like to sponsor me, please see my funding page on https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andypollak1 . Thank you to those who have already sponsored my walk. I will be coming to friends in the South with another walking appeal later in the summer!
¹ ‘Taoiseach tells FG support rising for united Ireland’, Irish Times, 14 June
³ Northern Ireland and the UK’s Exit from the EU: What do people think? https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/brexitni/BrexitandtheBorder/Report/Filetoupload,820734,en.pdf