What tomorrow’s census results will tell us (and just as importantly what they won’t)… – Slugger O’Toole
If 2001 and 2011 are to be believed, some things are better said before the release of the Northern Ireland census results rather than after, when the parties [Any one in particular? – Ed] have their talking point memos in local newsrooms.
TPMs are produced primarily for narrow political purposes rather than establishing useful facts through scrutiny of data that dwindling and impoverished local media are increasingly unable or unwilling to produce.
In the past, some party spins were comedic. Mitchel McLaughlin before the 2001 census was published just before Christmas in 2002, noted in the Belfast Telegraph on December 16, 2002 (note that it strictly refers to Protestants, not Unionists):
“I believe the census will confirm that the pro-union population is shrinking to the extent that for the first time it will be less than 50%. It is understandable that trade unionists are nervous and uncertain about the future given that the demographic trend will not prevent it.
But then, on UTV News on Dec. 19, that confident prediction went off the rails a bit:
“I don’t know of anyone who claimed that these census figures would in fact provide evidence that a constitutional change was about to happen tomorrow.”
But Sinn Fein, like when it boycotted Queens’ visit to the Republic in 2011, is learning from its mistakes. There hasn’t been such a confident prediction of dominance, suffice it to say border polls and/or a citizens’ assembly on its way to a single result.
But the focus has remained on ethnicity and the declining numbers of that proportion of the population that continues to call itself Protestant, without reference to other historical and contemporary forces that might be driving such a shift.
In a 1998 article exploring “the limits of census-based empiricism and the unrecognized problems of data and interpretation that have resulted in seriously misleading ‘conventional wisdom'”, noted James Anderson and Ian Shuttleworth:
…there is a large and growing proportion of the population that rejects the labels “Protestant” or “Catholic” (part of the reason for the “non-response” to the census question on religion).
This is due not only to increasing secularization, but also to the fact that more people wish to reject or escape the supposed political and sectarian connotations of religion, seeing politics as a matter of choice rather than birth.
Second, rather than ethnicity being a matter of two pre-given cultural groups adopting different national allegiances, the groups are themselves the creations of rival nationalisms. Their political differences are often greater than their cultural differences
Third, the slippery concept of ethnicity can be, and has been, easily twisted to imply ‘natural’, biological and racist categories: British ‘settlers’ and Irish ‘natives’, existing in unbroken lines since the Reformation, each group having its own immutable religious and political identity.
Note that this was before the 2001 results. It turns out that what has been widely assumed to be a linear progression in the state of the two religious communities is far from predictable, let alone a direction that is often assumed in public debate.
What’s going on? I want to reserve my more in-depth comments for the actual data when it’s announced tomorrow, but my hunch is pretty well laid out in my review of Malachi O’Doherty’s book on Can Ireland be one? It must be said, it is not rocket science.
The term Protestant is (as it was in mainland UK for most of the late sovereign’s reign) becoming increasingly irrelevant, even to practicing religious members of what we used to call the Reformed faith.
As I have argued in this review, the areas that see the highest number of people saying they are neither Protestant nor Catholic are almost exclusively in areas with a Protestant majority (such as North Down, 12% against an average NI of 5.6% in 2011 and 2.7% in West Belfast).
Politically, over the past decade, as trade unionism has declined, it has been replaced not so much by nationalism (which is stagnating) as by a form of post-constitutionalist politics, which reached around 20% in the recent elections.
Far from being motivated by fear of the imminent arrival of a united Ireland, this it seems to meto mark the re-emergence of a liberal tradition that drove land reform in the 1860s and 1870s, but ended in a merger with the conservatives within the UUC.
It is perhaps a felt distance or the absence of any serious political threat from the united Ireland of the “dream” of Irish republicanism that unravels many of these once strong defensive ties. It can also be a mundane but important offer of peace.
Tomorrow, the real results arrive at 9:30. Then we will know who was right in our great cult membership contest. After 73 entries, the average guesses amount to: 43% Catholics (41% in 2011); Protestants 38% (41%); Nor 20% (17%).
For more context, here’s how those assumptions read in relation to the 2001 figures: Catholics 40%; Protestant 46%. Nor 14%.
Please don’t read this and the following as more than a fun game. It is more a test of the robustness of public perception than any attempt to anticipate tomorrow’s results. In fact, we’ll learn as much from the differences as from what our readers get right.
Neither figure is in line with growth over the last two decades, I am less sure of the ratio of Catholics to Protestants. This could be explained by birth and death rates (Protestants dominated the upper age percentiles, Catholics the youngest).
Has the proportion of Catholics increased by 2% in the last ten years when it had increased by less than one in the previous decade? It is possible to believe that the Protestant population will be far from 3% against 5% in 2011, but that leaves little room for an increase of 3% neither.
Keep in mind that only half of those marked as such in previous censuses called themselves Protestant. The others responded by church affiliation: Presbyterian; Church of Ireland; Methodist; Another Christian. As observance declines, so does the number of Protestants.
Those defined as catholics are counted by a single answer to the same question, rather than grouped from several. It’s not, as I said above, rocket science, but it’s very easy to ignore if you’re sure you already know the story before tomorrow.
Well, whatever the numbers, I hope those tasked with covering this story tomorrow will take the time to consider the complexities of Northern Ireland’s demographics and the consequences of reprinting a “wisdom conventional” seriously misleading.
We have a choice: continue to reproduce an ethnic narrative that divides our population into categories of British ‘settlers’ and Irish ‘natives’, or treat this as an opportunity to identify common needs in order to shape a future that better meets them. .
Mick is the founding publisher of Slugger. He has written about the impacts of the internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaker across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty