The Irish Times led with, ‘There are just 54,000 more people from a Protestant background than from a Catholic one in Northern Ireland’. The headline figure, that most papers and the media noticed, was that the gap between Protestants and Catholics had narrowed to 3 per cent in the recent statistics released from the 2011 census. Bringing together the information on Religion and Religion Brought up in, 45 per cent of the population were either Catholic or brought up as Catholic, while 48 per cent belonged to or were brought up as Protestant, Other Christian or Christian- related denominations. A further 0.9 per cent belonged to or had been brought up in Other Religions and Philosophies, while 5.6 per cent neither belonged to, nor had been brought up in, a religion.
However, the headline figure does not represent the complex state and fluid nature of identity in Northern Ireland in the 21st century. At the last assembly election in 2011, the turnout was 54%. This means that 46% of people, who are registered to vote, did not bother or feel attracted by what was on offer. This poses serious questions for the political parties here in recent times. Alex Kane has been promoting the need for new political parties to take on the challenges of a post agreement Northern Ireland. He may be right when looking at the growth of Northern Irish identity and the number of people voting in 2011 compared to 1998.
The more interesting information gathered from the census stats. was that Two-fifths (40 per cent) of usual residents had a British Only national identity, a quarter (25 per cent) had Irish Only and just over a fifth (21 per cent) had Northern Irish Almost half (48 per cent) of people usually resident in Northern Ireland in 2011 included British as a national identity, while 29 per cent included Northern Irish and 28 per cent included Irish. Almost three-fifths (59 per cent) of people usually residing in Northern Ireland held a UK passport, just over a fifth (21 per cent) held an Ireland passport, while 19 per cent held no passport. Therefore, the head count of protestant versus catholic looks like it no longer applies to the political status of Northern Ireland. It appears that more than ever the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is in good shape. This correlates with the recent polls, which showed the lowest ever support for a United Ireland in the Life and times Surveys. This has prompted some to say that unionists have won, but were too stupid to realise it, and that republicans had lost, but were too smart to admit it. In recent weeks, the flag row in Belfast highlighted the need to bring everyone along on the journey of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Leaving the national identity and religious outlook aside, there were more pressing concerns for the Northern Ireland Assembly. One of the most shocking statistics was that 29 per cent of the population had no qualifications. If we are serious about becoming a world class economy, who wants to build and attract jobs, then this statistic needs to be challenged. Another worrying figure I took from the census report was that just over one in five of the usually resident population (21 per cent) had a long- term health problem or disability which limited their day-to-day activities. Again, this highlights the real difficulties Northern Ireland faces in the years and decades ahead, whether our political parties and politicians are up to the task is another matter.