“Time for the beginning of a calm debate” on Northern Ireland’s Demographics

Today’s Irish Times carries a detailed piece on demographic changes in Northern Ireland. Northern editor Gerry Moriarity writes:

THE BRITISH and Irish governments and the people of Northern Ireland are facing the prospect – and sooner than most people might think – of how to manage a transformed constitutional situation where the majority in the North are likely to be from a Catholic background.

It’s going to raise serious questions for southerners too, who must also address complex constitutional problems that if not managed properly and creatively could land Northern Ireland – and the rest of the island – back in the mire.

It’s time for the beginning of a calm debate.

The article contains a range of statistics about the numbers of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland’s schools, ranging all the way up to third-level. Catholics outnumber Protestants at all these levels, demonstrating that Northern Ireland’s young population is clearly majority Catholic.

This of course is not news to most people in Northern Ireland, nor does Moriarity raise a new question when he asks:

So, will that probable majority population also be predominantly nationalist and of such critical mass as to vote Northern Ireland into a united Ireland?

Moriarity notes that DUP First Minister Peter Robinson has seemed, of late, to have made overtures to potentially pro-union Catholics, perhaps reading the demographic writing on the wall.

But, especially for a southern Irish audience, Moriarity’s crucial point is that most people – from politicians to ordinary punters – haven’t thought about this demographic shift and its possible consequences.

Whether people want to think about this is yet another question. But Moriarity’s suggestion that the time is now for ‘calm debate’ is a sensible one.

The article also features the perspectives of Peter Shirlow, senior lecturer in the Queen’s University school of law, commentator Fionnuala O’Connor, and historian and Irish News journalist Brian Feeney.



  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks for this Gladys… I thought Pete Shirlow was spot on here:

    “With secularisation there is a growing ‘1690 what do you mean’ group that is similar to the ‘1916 what do you mean’ group in the South,” he says. “There is a growth in people who feel politics is too sectarian or too nationalist. They are operating a civic-shared identity through their lifestyle. They will socialise together, intermarry, go to gigs together. They are in many ways – but not completely – sectarian blind, or tradition blind.

    “It was primarily within the unionist electorate but from my observations it is starting to grow within the nationalist community. It is neither unionist nor Irish, it is identity-less, at most pale Orange or Green.”

    Slugger began in the midst of a lot of overheated rhetoric about the the religious make up predetermining constitutional choices.Something we documented in detail at the time… but in the summer, I laid out what I thought were the problems were with extrapolated, long before the actual results were announced in the December:


  • Plus ca change.

  • OneNI

    Also time for a calm debate on whether the Republic should consider re-joining the UK

  • keano10


    I think the notion that, because people might inter-marry and share a multitude of civic amenities, they will somewhow develop into a non-sectarian, tradition-blind new super-species is somewhat naive.

    From my own personal experience I have friends from both ‘traditions’ who have inter-married and their respective politics views appear to be every bit as strong as they were beforehand.

    I have always maintained that politics in The North is probably more isolated from religous bias than many people assume. (particularly on The Nationalist ‘side’). I think that people vote for political preference rather than religous bias. They are two entirely separate entities. I would also strongly dispute the long-held notion that being either a Nationalist or Unionist by preference makes one sectarian. It most certainly does not, yet media commentators are still happy to wheel out this nonsense during every local debate.

    The quote from Pete Shirlow which you have alluded to is similar to the sort of stuff which was freely peddled about by The Alliance Party in the immediate aftermath of The Good Friday Agreement when they called for schoolkids to design a new all-encompassing flag for the “New Northern Ireland”. They seemd to have completely missed the point that The Agreement was actually a recognition of the two traditions to regard themselves as being Irish or British accordingly.

    Their vision of a new non-sectarian super-race never actually materialised, surprise, surprise…

    Most of us would like to think that we have a far greater and more balanced respect for the political views of our opposite traditions, and undoubtedly local civic society is benefiiting greatly from that. But it would be wrong to assume that people’s political identities are any less passionately held, because of that. Indeed, we might be better accepting the fact that Nationalism and Unionism (as we know them) are not going to disappear and any visions of The North suddenly turning in to a converse of it’s past are both naive and possibly counter-productive.

  • John Ó Néill

    On Twitter, @tcgriffin noted a minor problem with figures in the IT piece, saying it is: strange the way he divides schools into 160,00 Catholics (57%), 120,000 Protestants (43%) and 40,000 others (0%)..

    [revised figures would be Catholic 50%, Protestant 37.5% other 12.5%]

    Also – if we are sticking with religion as labels – how come there is no space here for Protestants who decide they are not interested in the union anymore (hypothetically, surely there is equal chance that such an aberration may occur)? Oddly, the conjecture seems to be solely around pro-union Catholics rather than the possibility of anti-union Protestants (which might precipitate a demand for change in the constitutional status rather than pro-union Catholics slowing it down and making this even more of an immediate issue rather than less). It might be comforting for unionists to dream of all those silent pro-union Catholics (as it always has been), but it may be clutching at straws as well, rather than considering and dealing with this in any meaningful way.

    A recurring elephant in the room, on both sides of the debate, is NI’s current £7billion subvention required from London. This could easily stimulate London’s interest in jettisoning this permanent debt overhang (if it decides to weigh ideology against economics). At the same time, Dublin, with it’s own debt overhang (admittedly one which it, unlike NI, rightly or wrongly, actually has to pay off) appears to be in little position to proffer a similar subvention. Whether this would be adequately offset by the removal of inefficiencies created by the border is hard to calculate.

    Ultimately, neither religion, nor *identity* is likely to be as immediate a determining factor in future changes as economics (although, obviously, the electorate will have their say). I still think that assigning ‘religion’ to those who didn’t answer the question in the 2001 census was a bizarre choice – which may make the 2011 census figures (when they appear) look more dramatic than they should.

  • Reader

    John Ó Néill: A recurring elephant in the room, on both sides of the debate, is NI’s current £7billion subvention required from London. This could easily stimulate London’s interest in jettisoning this permanent debt overhang (if it decides to weigh ideology against economics).
    The *other* elephant in the room is that the whole UK economy is running on a deficit at the moment, and that therefore the whole of the UK is borrowing a ‘subvention’. That 7billion no longer sticks out like a sore thumb.

  • Home Rule for England

    “A recurring elephant in the room, on both sides of the debate, is NI’s current £7billion subvention required from London. This could easily stimulate London’s interest in jettisoning this permanent debt overhang”

    I think many English people would be more than glad to sever links with N.Ireland and the rest of the UK John. Hopefully Scotland will vote YES to independence in 2014.

  • Jimmy Sands

    Also time for a calm debate on whether the Republic should consider re-joining the UK

    Or how to respond to an application from the UK to join the constitutionally more advanced Republic.

  • jonno99

    Was it economic sense for the 26 counties to leave the union? These constitutional decisions, whether made in the past or in times ahead, are not always made for economic gain. There’s a whole complexity of issues, unforeseen circumstances and the law of unintended consequences that come into play.

    The growth of the nationalist population had the unintended consequence of seeing the DUP reach out for pro union votes from the nationalist community. The demographic change alters the perceived misconception that the GFA was simply a done deal. This far and no more. The Irish and British governments have to manage a peace ‘process’ that will in time involve constitutional change that reflects what’s happening on the ground.

  • Mick Fealty


    You have to look to the proportion of ‘Catholics’ to ‘Protestants’ then those voting Unionists versus those voting Nationalist. Unionism is not popular amongst Unionist communities, but they still manage to convene quite a block.

    Here’s the point I made back in 2002:

    “The Catholic birth rate is slowing in NI as it is everywhere in Europe, and is likely stablise at more or less 50%. [I meant at the time, that we were heading towards a long term stablisation of the numbers around the 50%, if current trends persist]

    “Such proportions are too tight to guarantee the full agreement of 100% of the Catholic population. Indeed, it is likely that a significant minority within nationalism will not be sufficiently motivated to cut ALL links to Britain in a single move.”

    I think you are radically mischaracterising Pete’s point there. The point he makes is that they may be atypical of wider patterns, but when translated into constitutionally neutral political choices, they act as a stablising block on constitutional matters.

  • Home Rule for England

    “Or how to respond to an application from the UK to join the constitutionally more advanced Republic”

    If Scotland declares independence there won’t be a UK to join! In any case there is no way that England would want to join or be accepted by the Republic.

    Scotland Wales and N.Ireland? That’s a different matter. Some sort of celtic union might be acceptable to the Republic I suppose. Not that it’s anything to do with an English nationalist like me.

  • carnmoney.guy

    Break free from the control of London

    to be dictated to by Bonn

    out of the frying pan………….

  • Looks like we could be living in interesting times.

    However, I’d say there would need to be an 80% Catholic and 20% Protestant population for a 50%+1 vote to be in favour of NI leaving the UK. Clearly that’s never going to happen.

    What will be interesting will be the options if Scotland votes to leave the union, and England decides to retrench back to an England & Wales union, which would probably find favour in England.

    What does NI do then? Become independent or Unite with the ROI.

    NI becoming independent isn’t going to be so popular with the Protestant population if they become a minority within NI. Because, isn’t that what they have feared all along?

    If Scotland leaves, I think England will want to hive off NI to join with the Republic, and put in place a mechanism to make it happen.

    If NI brings the BBC with them I’ll consider the union 🙂

  • redhugh78

    The now deceased Horseman (May God be good to him) is probably looking down and saying ‘I told you so!, Ulster’s doomed’.


  • Greenflag

    @ Home Rule for England ,

    ‘In any case there is no way that England would want to join or be accepted by the Republic.’

    Probably true although if they (the English ‘ got rid of the monarchy and disestablished the COE and accepted a modern written Constitution with ‘referendum ‘safeguards built in I would’nt have any objection to an ‘enlarged ‘Republic of the Isles’ . In uncertain times it’s best not to close out options .

    @ Red Hugh 78,

    Thanks for reminding us of the much missed Horseman whose website provides a mass of detail on the ‘demographics ‘ issue and it’s likely political consequences .

    Regardless however of the eventual political fallout it seems clear that relations between the peoples of the UK will remain as close as they have been for centuries and there will be continuing ‘interference ‘in each others affairs .

    Those who have read the recently released State papers know that even the Iron lady herself was up for the ‘Irish ‘(North and South ) sorting out their own future rather than being a continuing drain on Britain’s position in the world . Fortunately she was persuaded against a unilateral withdrawal by wiser military top brass . Ditto for Wilson and Callaghan decades earlier.

    With respect to Horseman ‘Ulster ‘is not doomed .the current NI State may or may not be doomed to pass the way of political extinction but Ulster will retain as always regardless of it’s demographics a ‘regional ‘identity on this island .

  • Greenflag

    Carnmoney guy

    ‘Break free from the control of London

    to be dictated to by Bonn’

    Bonn ? Surely you meant Berlin .Bonn has’nt been the German capital since 1990 .

    ‘out of the frying pan…………’

    Perhaps -on the other hand the Germans seem to have managed their country’s economy these past 20 years far better than the Brits or the Irish and they had the former East Germany to modernise and rebuild as well . This they now seem to have achieved with East German wages and living standards now almost up to western standards .

    At least the Germans seem to know how to manage the ‘real ‘economy -unlike the financial sector box of magic paper that Wall St and the City seem have allowed strangle their ‘real ‘economies for the benefit of only a tiny priviliged elite in their populations:(

  • Drumlins Rock

    for those who want the raw date, here it is from the education board website,

    One other factor that distorts the results slightly is immigration, with a recent assembly report stating “In relation to school enrolments, the 2010 School Census shows that over 5,000 primary school children has a language other than English as their first language, around 3 per cent of the total primary school population.” Taken along with 10% of births in NI are by foreign born mothers the 3% is probably an understatment, obviously not all of these are catholic but it is likely the vast majority are.
    For the sake of arguement switching the 5,000 from catholic to protestant & others in the primary sector reduces the percentage from almost 51% to just over 47%
    Lie, damed lies and the rest of course…

  • Into the west

    as long as commentator Fionnuala O’Connor,
    and historian and Irish News journalist Brian Feeney
    are around to analyse and offer wisdom we’ll be fine.

  • Crow

    I think one likely development that was not mentioned in the article will be the re-birth of the partitionists. Even in the absence of a Border Poll, (let alone one that is likely to be successful), the putative catholic majority will rankle with many on the unionist right. Politically, even a catholic majority that could drive a nationalist majority at Stormont, will have no more power than the protestant/unionist one today. However, psychologically and optically it will discomfort enough unionists to dream of homogenous East Ulster that would restore their rightful place. The spectre of Rome Rule may be long gone but it has been replaced by a very distinctive ethnic characterization that in many ways is even more divisive. I am doubtful that the partitionists would win the day but I do see them entering the debate.

  • Republic of Connaught

    The momentum of the SNP in Scotland is a far greater immediate threat to the UK – and by extension NI’s constitutional position – than Catholic growth in NI. I doubt a majority of Catholics in the north will vote for unification until they’re confident the Prods will be rational about it all and won’t go all Apocalypic starting sectarian warfare.

    I don’t believe the average everyday northern Protestant wants to be pariahs on their home island for generations to come so some accomodation will be found in the next twenty years if, as expected, the UK breaks. Ulster autonomy within a united Ireland with Stormont still operational will be the easiest transition.

    Although as Ireland found out since independence, England will always be the Alsation among Celtic terriers on these islands.

  • JoeBryce

    The Armed Struggle kept the Union safe. Molyneaux was extraordinarily perceptive about that. It has now been over long enough for change to grow beneath the surface. It is now beginning to break surface. People of the unionist tradition should begin to think what future we wish to negotiate. Matters will become urgent once Scotland goes its own way. There will never be a United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • HeinzGuderian

    The average,everyday ‘protestant/catholic/muslin/hindu/buddhist/atheist’ etc,etc,etc in the in the republic of ireland is a pariah on the EEC,to which the UK pays a disproportionate amount of money.
    I therefore fail to see the benefit to the UK of irish unity……..as it would still be paying for it.

    When Mr Salmond comes clean on the cost of an ‘Independent Scotland’ to the Scottish taxpayer,Scottish Nationalism will disappear faster than my good self from this forum !!! 😉

  • JR


    What strikes me about that data is the fall in Protestants through the age ranges. From 38% in secondary education (Combined Grammar and secondary) to 36.6% in Primary school to 29.4 in Nursery school. We will have to wait untill the census comes out to be totally sure but the number of people in the North who call themselves protestants has continued to decline.

    I think an interesting thing we will see in the Next census is a polarisation of the Demographic change. The Demographic change will be very inconsistant across Northern Ireland. For example Larne will become slightly more Protestant and Newry becoming alot more Catholic.

  • Framer

    NI will continue to be ever more attractive to new Britons and asylum seekers in the UK who appreciate its cheaper housing and good schools. They will, and increasingly do, constitute a third force who aren’t interested in the national conflict.

  • Count Eric Bisto von Granules

    What are the chances that the unionist leadership will negotiate a settlement with Dublin rather than live in a nationalist majority northern ireland with the people they been going head to head with since the 1960s. Is this more likely in the event of an independent northern ireland? Once a Catholic majority is seen as inevitable and accepted by unionists of all hues will this be the catalyst for a tipping point with a small but a significant minority choosing in the medium term to relocate to the ‘mainland’?

  • tuatha

    Re Moriarty’s rhetoric about whether a (nominally) confessional majority would be nationalist, I’m not convinced that the majority of the Republic’s citizens could be (or WANT to be) described as nationalist.
    So 18/19thC, so generative of disaster – for proclaimers & bystanders, so intrinsically & incestuously self destructive.
    There are few anthropological constants so thoroughly ignored and shouted down than exogamy, ie “marry out or die out”.

  • GoldenFleece

    Lets not forget the factor of rising atheism as well.
    Studies show that protestants are more likely to tick the no religion box than catholics.

  • Henry94

    Studies show that protestants are more likely to tick the no religion box than catholics.

    For all the good it does them if they are still called protestants.

    Ireland (south) is not now in a position to offer a united independent state only German rule rather than British rule. So as of now there is nothing to talk about. Unless unionists are interested is escaping from their Sinn Fein dominated future into an new all-Ireland arrangement where Sinn Fein will never be in power. But it wouldn’t be actual freedom for any of us.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Can’t Count Eric, look at the voting trends not the religious ones, total nationalist vote was around 42% last yr, in 2010 it was around 42%, in ’09 ’07 ’05 ’04 ’01 it was around 42% in ’03 it was 40% but in ’99 a whopping 45% ! a rise can only be seen if you go back to ’97 when it was 38%, previous to that it was around 33% twenty years ago.

    Going by the long term trends in another 20 years the 50% nationalist majority would have been reached, but going by the last ten years it has stagnated, if anything actually fallen, that does not even start to factor in those who vote nationalist but would not vote for a united Ireland.

    Finally, the talk of Scottish independance being almost certain is extremely premature, opinion polls put it at 38% in favour, 57% against, that leaves only 5% undecided and opinions probably starting to polarise, that is a major swing needed in a couple of years. Plus if Scotland were to go its own way, it makes absolutely no difference to NI for decades at least, with European relationship evolving at the the current pace I’m not placing any bets on the shape of things to come!

  • Alias

    “NI will continue to be ever more attractive to new Britons and asylum seekers in the UK who appreciate its cheaper housing and good schools. They will, and increasingly do, constitute a third force who aren’t interested in the national conflict.” – Framer

    They are a group that chose to live and work in the UK. Some of them might not have been entitled to live and work in Ireland prior to becoming British citizens, but all of them are entitled to now. Yet they vote with their feet to remain within the UK, and will more than likely vote that way by traditional means. I think you can class them as unionists.

  • derrydave

    Certainly in the short and medium term I see a greener NI being the more likely result of these demographic changes. Republicanism and Nationalism will increase in strength, Bristish symbols will be eroded further and Irish symbols will increase. This process has already started and will continue.
    Re the constitutional vote – until we start investigating the practicalities of any move to a United Ireland then it seems to me impossible to ignore the massive numbers employed in the civil service (funded by the annual subvention).
    My family (2 boys, 2 girls) would be considered republican in politics. 2 (including me) have left NI, and would undoubtedly vote for a UI if given the chance. The 2 who remain in NI however are both employed by the Civil Service (as well as one of their partners) – how would these young Sinn-Fein voting republicans vote if given the chance ?? With the times we live in I just can’t see how they would put their incomes / careers and mortgages at risk. Any ‘normal’ person will always put their family above politics – I think there would be something seriously wrong with someone who didn’t.
    If the UK were to break-up with Scotland going for independance the entire situation is completely changed of course. As mentioned above – this is the real threat to the Union, not the demographics of NI.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Why does the slim chance of Scotland going make any difference? so you drive through another country after disembarkment at at Carnryan, but sure many already do that going Dublin Hollyhead, it will have little impact on NI and our costa are that tiny England won’t really care even if they could do something about it, I can’t see the practical implications at all.

  • tuatha

    London’s subvention for NI is 7B quid and for Scotland even higher (oil revenues dropping since the North Sea peaked).
    It’s unlikely that tory enthusiasm for the restive & turbulent regions will survive the onrushing penury as the eurozone implodes.
    Putting aside social/political/religious considerations for a moment, imagine the island of Ireland being a self sustaining economic entity.
    Forget rivers of gold from Brussels, London & the remittances of the emigrants, just relying on ourselves, alone.
    Any takers?

  • antamadan

    Drumlin’s Rock: Interesting, but I think incomplete.
    The nationalist vote has stagnated, but the unionist vote is still falling and the gap seems to be narrowing (i.e. except for one blip). The blip was a huge turnout in nationalist areas and a small turnout in unionist areas hevident in the nationalist deliverance-hope & euporia of a peace process/seeming British-Irish & Unionist-Nationalist inbetween NI and cross border and a small bit of East West Agreement. This nationalist euphoria has ended and the massive turnout west of the Bann has declined, but still the nationalist vote holds up at 42%. As this is also the amount of those from an Irish nationalis/catholic background OVER 18, the link of voting pattern of those from Gaelic/Nationalist backrounds to political nationalist parties would seem to be every bit as strong as those of British backgrounds to unionism (regardless of what they say to ‘N.Ireland/British official pollsters). Of course, it doesn’t mean ‘they’ are right.

  • Count Eric Bisto von Granules

    DR : I hear what you’re saying and recognise the figures you use as factual. However, the interesting bit for me is that the people unionists consistently using them, will in the same interview will espouse policies and views that are contrary to what they have stated and undermine their original argument.
    I think that the tide is positive for nationalism and while using isolated figures as a comfort blanket, it means that unionists will continue to support contrary ideals. Surely a confident unionism shouldnt have any problem with an Irish language sign on Belfast City Hall – and yet they do.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Forget rivers of gold from Brussels, London & the remittances of the emigrants, just relying on ourselves, alone.
    Any takers?

    When the majority becomes Catholic it could declare itself Holy See Two.

    Okay, do I get the red, black or yellow card for that one?

  • john

    What is it with all of you? Wee Jeffrey stated in the newsletter the other day that the United Ireland debate is over so back to work with the lot of you and no more talk of this nonsense!

  • orly

    1.First both the UK and the Republic need to exit from the EU
    2. Both join/re-join EFTA
    3. The 5 constituent countries of this part of the world go to a german type arrangement in a Federal system.
    4. ?????
    5. Profit.

  • dairishguy

    i believe if the vote came up both Nationalist and Unionist would sit around in Stormount and would agree an Independent State or something along those lines,
    and im of the Nationalist mindset but if a United Ireland vote came up thats what would happen,

  • hmscollingwood

    My parents left Belfast in August 1957 for London, Ontario, Canada, to return to Belfast in June 1958, after just 10 months, because they: ‘missed family’ in the case of my nominally Catholic mother; and the lack of a clear religious divide – my father being a bigoted Protestant, nominal Jehovah’s Witness.

    In May 1960 our family fell apart, and both my parents are now dead. My Jehovah’s Witness brother Howard returned to Canada in 2000, after selling his small flat in Bracknell, Berkshire and swapping it for a 3 bedroom detached house. In the city where he was born, London, Ontario, 2 weeks before we returned to the UK in 1958. He has never returned to the UK.

    Nothing would induce me to live in Northern Ireland, unlike my father, who left England to live in Lambeg, Lisburn because of an incurable inferiority complex, and where he died 2 years ago.

    My feelings regarding Northern Ireland have not changed since leaving Belfast in November 1972, for London, England, at the height of The Troubles. I have never been back.

    Only my father remained for about the next 15 years, before following his nominal ‘family’ (living on his own in Colnbrook, West London from about 1985-99). My mother remarried to a half-Jew carpenter businessman in 1968, and left Taughmonagh, Belfast in 1970, with my brothers and sisters, due to fire bomb threats from local louts (her being an ex-Catholic).

    Since then, thousands have died in the violence and physically, as far as Belfast is concerned, the ideologies traditionally remain as before, but now besieged behind 20 kilometres of so-called Peace Walls.

    I have always felt that the main cause of The Troubles in N Ireland is not politics or religion – but the chronic lack of jobs.

    This has persisted amongst the Catholic population, because the major industries were usually owned by Protestants, particularly in Belfast. When I was there, from 1968-70, less than 500 of the 7500 workforce in Harland & Wolff shipyard were Catholic, despite thousands of Catholics living in the Short Strand and Markets and Gas Works areas right next to the shipyard. How many remember factories like Cyril Lord carpets, and ‘Back to the Future’ car DeLorean and the fiasco (drug dealing bust, that followed)? Or Strathern direct drive turntables made in Belfast during the 1970-80s? I bought an early one and it ran backwards..!

    Likewise The Rope Works at Connswater, which also employed 3500, was an overwhelmingly Protestant workforce. Discrimination was rife.

    Mackie engineering West Belfast, once employed 6500, mostly Protestant, since gone from the work map. Unemployment in Belfast is growing among Catholics because of their increased birth rate, particularly in West Belfast, at +13% over the Protestants, with few jobs, and living in areas marked ‘deprived’.

    The difference is that young Catholics suffer three times as much unemployment as Protestants, due to lack of local area investment. Not helped by vandalism, insurance problems and The Troubles over the last 40+ years.

    Few people care what government they have as long as they have a job – take NAZI Germany as a classic historical lesson in ‘enlightened self interest’, regardless of side issues. Poor 1930s Germans voted for Adolf Hitler because he promised full employment, with benefits… unless you were Jewish, etc.