If demographics is destiny, it’s up to us to decide the sort of destiny we want

I was intrigued by my friend David McWilliams’ warm and typically human account of Northern Ireland’s constitutional prospects in the FT. David has always had an abiding commitment to exploring the possibilities and the advantages of a single polity living on our island.

In the naughties, he invited me to speak on a panel on his RTE show, which looked at the prospects of a united Ireland. On the bus down I rang one of my oldest small ‘u’ unionist mates who’d spent his working life weaving across the world who told me it would come down to the wallet.

The biggest problem he thought at that time (Stormont was down and powersharing had not yet descended into the sour standoff into which it subsequently collapsed), was the currency difference. As people notoriously hate changing banks, currency change also invokes deep insecurity.

To which I might have added culture. More recently another small ‘u’ unionist friend confessed that the bullish behaviour of the DUP on Brexit had caused him to think for the first time about a united Ireland, “until some intemperate Shinner opens his mouth and it’s gone”.

“Culture”, I heard recently, “eats strategy for breakfast”. This is something Alex Salmond implicitly understood. No ethnically Irish Catholic in the central belt would trust the SNP as far as they could throw them: now they’re one of the most numerically significant converts.

It is also something McWilliams clearly gets. He tells this story of a Co Down wedding back in July 1994 in the last month or so of the Troubles:

Being best man is always tricky; being best man at a northern-southern union during the Troubles posed a new set of challenges. At 3pm on the dot, the groom and I stood at the altar waiting for the bride.

The entire right-hand side of the church was full: punctual northerners.

It is understood everywhere that brides are usually late, but congregations are supposed to turn up on time. As we looked down from the elevated altar, almost every pew on the left, the Dubliners’ side, was empty.

The southerners had, almost to a man and woman, observed the great Irish ritual of the swift one before the big do. This was in the days before mobile phones. I had to barrel down the road in the minister’s shiny red Vauxhall to shoo Dubliners into the church.

The bridesmaid couldn’t stop laughing at these Dubliners, their casual attitudes to time and ritual; then, reader, she married me. So began my 25-year education in the intricacies of Northern Ireland.

He goes on to note that “…of those over 90 in the North, 64 per cent are Protestant and 25 per cent are Catholic. A total of 9 per cent had no declared religion [while] the corresponding figure for the young is 34 per cent Protestant and 45 per cent Catholic.”

The dominant joint share of those primary categories drops from 89% to 79%. That’s nearly 20% of the population no longer self-defining themselves by the traditional religious markers. A point I was invited to illustrate last year in the wake of our “election to nowhere” on RTE:

David’s wedding story put me in mind of one of my own, which also took place in Co Down just nine years earlier. Again, the Catholic (otherwise punctual northerners all) side was all but empty but for very different reasons from David’s Dub friends.

Only at the last minute was the local priest prevailed upon by the Bishop to provide a post hoc blessing for the otherwise sublimely happy occasion (which was taking place in a Presbyterian church) that the wider extended family felt free to come and take their seats.

In the years since the authority of the Catholic Church has vastly diminished. On the too rare occasions I go to Mass in my home parish today there’s now a huge hollow gap between my contemporaries who still attend and their school-age kids/grandchildren.

The Protestant birth rate has been falling behind the Catholic one since 1981 for several reasons, among them a huge exodus due to the violence of the Troubles. But the structure of Northern Irish society is changing in ways that most official analyses fail to capture.

The demise of the NI Economic Council, which produced the last detailed review of demography in Northern Ireland in Paul Compton’s 1995 monograph, hasn’t helped matters. NI has few means to think publicly about such key matters objectively.

In the last sentence of that review, Compton notes that the numerical gap would eventually lead to “a situation of rough equivalence with neither group in a decisive majority”. And so it has come to pass. It is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Both main groups are shrinking, yet, twenty years after the Belfast Agreement embedding powersharing as the only way forward, our politics remains mired in the politics of culture war and stubbornly irreconcilable oppositionalism.

McWilliams closes by noting “politics is tribal but demographics is destiny”. In the case of the Republic’s economic revolution, there’s considerable merit in that. But under these northern circumstances, there is no game let alone a gameplan.

In his latest book, Renaissance Nation, he makes the point that history is at least as much cyclical as it is linear. And this is key to understanding the historical roots of that prosperity.

It lies in the post-war era when a consensus grew in the Republic that it needed to connect more effectively with the outside world and markets beyond the UK (to which, in spite of De Valera’s best efforts, it remained umbilically tied).

In 1957, the Rostrevor born Secretary General at the Dept for Finance TK Whitaker wrote a paper called “The Irish Economy”. The cross-cutting systemic reforms he laid out were implemented quickly but took two generations and several severe up and down cycles to bed in.

Demography can be a gift or a menace.

A demographic transition occurs when birth rates fall and families are able to invest more in their children’s education, creating what demographers call a “boom generation”.

As Professor David Bloom et al have noted: “there is the opportunity to unleash an economic growth spurt, provided the right kinds of policies are in place to ensure the extra workers are productively employed.”

Free post-primary education in Northern Ireland came in twenty years before the south and it eventually led to civil conflict as the new Catholic middle-class came of age and hit a wall of discrimination in employment and barriers to engagement with democracy and power.

In the south, since the economy was still relatively small, the Lemass/Whitaker reforms in education were aimed as much at enabling emigrants to prosper once they left as “tech-ing up” the next domestic generation: the effects of FDI would take much longer to bear fruit.

Whichever it is, depends on how willing people are to back themselves, their native talents and their deeper understanding of what it takes to create a better society. Whitaker and Lemass were an a priori necessity for the liberation of McWilliams’ Pope’s Children.

Eoghan Harris made a timely (if contestable) observation on the importance of Irish rugby coach, Joe Schmidt and the Aristotelian secret of his success: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

We have tended to treat the Belfast Agreement as a single redemptive act, when in fact it was just the opportunity to change and reshape the future of Northern Ireland and its wider on and off island relations in line with its own internal changes.

Nor, to disagree with Eoghan, is Joe Schmidt a one-off phenomenon.

The IRFU’s journey towards the top end of the international Rugby tree (which began in 1995) is a useful foil against which to view the failures of Northern Ireland to embrace the sort of policy framework that might prove transformational over the long term.

Policy (ie, good habits) is what sets the preconditions for long-term failure or success. It is what builds and changes nations. Poor policy formation, or none at all, can only lead to drift and failure. So we endure the delusional caricature of laager politics, just as real identity has become more complex.

As another old friend Trevor Ringland explains to Simon Carswell in the Irish Times:

Explaining the complex composite identities of Northern Ireland, Ringland recalls a cycling holiday to Serbia. They encountered an angry Serb who quizzed them on their nationality.

He asked whether they were British and said he hoped they were not because the British had bombed his country.“Suddenly we all declared how Irish we were,” says Ringland, laughing.

He believes that Northern Ireland’s future is in blurring the lines around identity that Brexit has inadvertently redrawn. “Belfast is as British as Finchley but it is not as English and it is as Irish as Cork but it is not as Irish-Irish,” he says.

“The key to the future is more inclusive identities. Certainly, a British identity is Scottish, Welsh and Irish and a multitude of other nationalities.”

In Northern Ireland, McWilliams concludes, “politics is tribal but demographics is destiny.” However the decision over what sort of destiny still remains firmly in our hands. Perhaps it is time we used the (admittedly limited) policy tools we already have available?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty