A claim that Catholics could soon outnumber Protestants in the Six Counties has been highlighted by nationalist parties to convince those with a unionist background to feel “at home” in a new, united Ireland.
Paul Nolan, a researcher who has produced the ‘Northern Ireland Peace Monitor’ reports for the Stormont Executive, said he believes the North is undergoing significant demographic change.
Nolan, formerly of Queen’s University Belfast, classifies the population of the Six Counties simply as ‘Protestant’, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Other’, and predicts Catholics will soon by in a majority.
He points to census figures from 2011 which put the Protestant population at 48 per cent, Catholics at 45 per cent, and 7 per cent Other. More recent figures from 2016 show 44 per cent of working age adults are Catholic, 40 per cent Protestant and 16 per cent are Other.
He concluded that Catholics will be the majority religious denomination on the centenary of partition.
“Three years from now we will end up, I think, in the ironic situation on the centenary of the state (sic) where we actually have a state that has a Catholic majority,” he told the BBC’s ‘The View’.
His analysis disregarded the growing ‘Other’ group that some political commentators have said will intervene to prevent any move towards Irish unity based on demographics. He also did not make any differentiation for the Polish and other immigrant groups who now make up 5% of the Catholic population, and 10% of those of working age.
But he pointed out that being Catholic does not necessarily mean being nationalist. Although 45 per cent identified in the 2011 census as being from a Catholic background, only 25 per cent claimed an exclusively Irish identity. Inculcation into the British establishment means that many Irish Catholics have come to identify with British rule, at least in part.
Falling birth rates, lengthening lifespans and fluctuating immigration and emigration also complicate statistical predictions of a demographic shift towards nationalism. British officials once boasted that it would never arise, because the process of normalisation of British rule would ensure the issue would have faded from view.
But the statistic for schoolchildren is hard to ignore: they are now 51% Catholic, 37% Protestant, and 12% Other.
Nolan suggested unionists could do more to persuade people to support the union with Britain: “In other words people who do not identify with the traditional trappings of unionism; people who would give their support for a UK government framework and that’s a sizeable proportion of Catholics provided they are not alienated by any form of triumphalism or anything that seems to be a rejection of their cultural identity as nationalists.”
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said unionists “have to be at home in a new Ireland”.
“So, yes, let’s have the discussion,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned nothing is taboo. Let’s talk about the flag, let’s talk about the anthem, let’s talk about every nuance and every aspect of Irish life north and south.”
DUP politician Christopher Stalford said he would never leave Ireland, even in the case of reunification.
He told the programme: “We need to show that you can be British and Irish at the same time”.
However, said he felt British rather than Irish. Reacting to Mr Stalford’s comments, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said unionism needed to “feel comfortable” in “the type of Ireland I want to see”.
“If you want to build a new Ireland we have to engage positively in a way that recognises Christopher’s Britishness.
“We have always said the Good Friday Agreement should endure beyond a border poll. Unionism would be protected. It isn’t about joining a Catholic country anymore. We should try to convince each other of the best possible way forward.
“I’m not in interested in defeating anyone or raking up the past and dealing with old stories of oppression. I’m not sure I’ll ever convince Christopher, but... we can convince enough people in time. I would say to Christopher - this is your home as much as mine.”