More on Northern Ireland

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Mon Feb 11 21:21:56 MST 2002


Unionists filled with foreboding at loss of influence

Changing make-up of population has major implications for politics, the
economy and society as a whole

By David McKittrick Ireland Correspondent

11 February 2002


Demographics are changing the face of Northern Ireland with bewildering
rapidity and profound implications not just for politics but for the economy
and society as a whole.

The balance of power between nationalist and Unionist is fundamentally
shifting, with Protestants believing they are steadily declining both in
numbers and political power. The corollary is that Catholics believe that
nationalism is very much on the move.

Discussions of demographics are highly charged politically. They can quickly
deteriorate into overheated and sometimes mischievous speculation that a
Catholic majority is imminent and that this will inevitably lead to Irish
unity.

Such an outcome is dependent on the arrival of a voting majority, and on the
assumption that Catholics would then unanimously vote for a united Ireland.
All of this is highly questionable. But what is certain in terms of
practical politics is that the power relationships between the two
communities are fundamentally changing the fabric of Northern Ireland's
politics.

The old ratio of two-thirds Protestant to one-third Catholic, the backdrop
to politics for so many decades, has gone. In its place is a very different
mathematical and political model, with the census results expected to
confirm that rapid movement is continuing.

On the streets, the Protestant perception of losing ground can have violent
results. This was vividly seen in the recent rioting in the north Belfast
troublespot of Ardoyne, with loyalists seeking to prevent Catholic
schoolgirls attending school in a Protestant area.

Local Protestants presented themselves as a dwindling community battling
against Catholic "encroachment." They complained of a twofold alienation,
claiming Catholics were making ground both politically and geographically at
Protestant expense.

Most of the loyalist marching controversies of recent years have resulted
from demographic changes, as Protestant organisations sought to continue
parading through districts that were once Protestant but which are now
Catholic.

In political terms the advances of nationalism are clear enough, embodied as
they are in the Good Friday Agreement, which gives Sinn Fein and other
nationalists places at the highest level of devolved government.

On the Protestant and Unionist side recent debate has centred on a phrase
used by John Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who declared: "Northern
Ireland must not become a cold place for Protestants, or we will have
failed." Mr Reid noted that Unionist confidence has declined while the
Catholic community "breathes confidence, coherence, dynamism and energy".
Assertions by a number of Unionist politicians that it has already become a
cold place are partly fuelled by the steady growth of the Catholic
population.

This perception can only be reinforced by new figures confirming that the
Protestant community is steadily losing in the numbers game.

Almost every part of the statistical calculations used to work out
population numbers is open to challenge and argument, but some points are
clear.

Population changes rest on birth rates, death rates and emigration.
Catholics have a distinct majority of school-age children. Each year roughly
5,000 more Protestants than Catholics die, because the Protestant population
has an older age profile.

Emigration patterns are almost entirely a mystery, but most of the signs
point to a reversal of traditional patterns, which used to see many more
Catholics than Protestants emigrating.

There is now a "brain drain" of Protestant teenagers going to universities
and colleges in England and especially Scotland. There are suggestions that
many of them stay to work in Britain rather than returning home, while more
Catholic young people go back to Northern Ireland after college.

One close observer summed up: "Protestants are losing on all the known
demographic indicators. On births, Catholics are ahead while more
Protestants are dying. These factors are changing the population balance,
though at a fairly s low rate. The one factor that could change the
demographic balance rapidly is emigration; it is the joker in the pack.
About 20,000 a year leave here and about 20,000 a year come in, and we don't
know anything about them."

The main factor causing uncertainty over the exact position is the dearth of
precise statistics on such patterns. This helps to explain why the census
returns will be so closely scrutinised, though even its figures will be open
to argument and interpretation.

Most involved in Anglo-Irish politics will be dismayed at any suggestion
that population balance is moving towards a knife-edge, since that seems
bound to increase Protestant insecurities and uncertainties. The brain drain
and other factors such as low election turn-outs among Unionists are already
clear signs of Unionist apathy and low morale. The unanswerable question is
whether demographic changes will result in a further hardening of attitudes,
or greater Unionist willingness to make a deal before the numbers become
even worse.


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