Children in Northern Ireland are continuing to be shoe-horned into Orange and Green identities, by the very programme set up to break down divisions. This article draws on a recent FOI request to the NI Executive, to show how children participating in ‘Together: Building a United Community’ (TBUC) Camps, ended up being designated as one community background or the other. A factor which surely makes it more difficult to break out of the cycle of polarisation in Northern Ireland, and which may be at odds with how young people actually identify themselves.
The NI Executive’s ‘Together: Building a United Community’ (TBUC) Strategy recently facilitated 113 camps for over 4200 children and young adults aged 11 to 19 years old. The Executive Office (TEO) produced an infographic fact sheet, which I first saw on Twitter after South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly retweeted it.
It reported the participant breakdown as ‘51% CNR, 45% PUL, 4% Ethnic/Other’.
I thought it odd that the labels ‘Catholic Nationalist Republican’, and ‘Protestant Unionist Loyalist’ had been applied to the young people participating, and that 96% of participants were ‘one or the other’. So, with a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, I asked TEO some questions.
I enquired what questions were asked, and to whom, to gather this data. TEO informed me, “young people in conjunction with their leaders complete a baseline survey and are asked if they describe their own religious background as Catholic / Protestant / No religion / Other. The young people self-select from these options. The same applies to ethnic background. The young people self-select from Asian / Black / White / Mixed / Other.”
I enquired if the TBUC camps had asked the participants, or their parents or guardians, about their political identities. TEO told me they did not. Therefore, these labels have been applied based solely on whether a participant, “in conjunction with their leaders”, ‘self-selects’ Catholic or Protestant.
TEO pointed me to the ‘Camps Programme Evaluation Report’ to find the data used to produce the statistical participant breakdown. It reveals that it is based on the returns from 90 of the camps, or 3243 of the participants. The report says there were 1640 from “Catholic communities”, later reporting the same number of “CNR” participants, there were 1476 participants from “Protestant Communities”, later labelled as “PUL”, and “a further 127 young people from minority ethnic communities”.
Every participant is accounted for within CNR, PUL and Minority Ethnic. By selecting, for example, the “religious background” Catholic, participants have been considered to be from “Catholic communities” and to be “CNR”. However, these considerations mean something different than ‘religious background’. A Catholic may be from a mixed community, or a majority Protestant community, and they may not be a Nationalist or a Republican. And of course, they may not even be a practising Catholic.
While the 2013 TBUC Strategytalks of inclusion and diversity, recognising that society is more complex than ‘two communities’, and it never uses the acronyms CNR and PUL, the TBUC Camps initiative is placing the focus there. “Essential elements” of these camps are to “have a cross community basis, and as far as possible contain a 50/50 split of Catholic / Nationalist / Republican (CNR) and Protestant / Unionist / Loyalist (PUL) participants. There is a 20% variance allowed in relation to the participant community background ratios. Young people from Ethnic Minority backgrounds can participate within Camps, however, the majority of participants must come from the two main communities within Northern Ireland.”
I asked if TEO thought, for example, that all Catholics are Nationalist and Republican. TEO responded “no”, telling me CNR stands for “C or N or R”. Given that this cohort had only self-selected “Catholic”, and had not been asked if they identify as Nationalist or Republican, it would suggest TEO’s view of young Catholics is that they are, or will be, Nationalists and/or Republicans. To suppose there is no deviation from these overly simplistic, conflated ‘communities’, misunderstands the complexity of identity here, and it erases the people who don’t fit the narrative – Protestant Nationalists, Catholic Unionists, the non-religious, the constitutionally unaligned, and the apolitical – from the ‘United Community’ TBUC is aiming to build.
I asked how an ethnic minority Protestant or Catholic would be categorised, or a young adult who is religiously agnostic with a Protestant background but supported Irish unity. To both questions TEO said “young people self-select this”. This remains unclear – potentially a participant could select, for example, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Black’, and there was no way for the second hypothetical participant to disclose an identify more complex than ‘no religion’ or ‘Protestant [religious background]’.
Although, according to the evaluation report, there were no ‘no religion’ participants. With the FOI request I had asked how many participants had non-religious backgrounds, and apolitical backgrounds.
To both questions the response was “no information available”. So, despite the increasing numbers of young people being identified to school censuses as of ‘no religion’, and the reduction in church attendance, there were no camp participants recorded as being non-religious. Did the camps attract none? Or did answering the questions “in conjunction with their leaders” lead to young people being advised which ‘religious background’ to “self-select”? I’d have anticipated some participants to say they ‘don’t know’ what their religious background is, but according to TEO there was no ‘don’t know’ option on the baseline survey.
The vast majority of camp participants are too young to vote, and some 35-45% of the NI electorate don’t vote, yet only 4% of participants are not viewed through a political lens – and that’s because they are not white. (It is not known whether there were any Traveller participants, or if self-selecting saw them treated as members of a ‘main community’ or an ethnic minority.)
I advised TEO of what I thought was the most relevant 2011 Census data, the ‘Religion’ output for most of this cohort, who in 2011 would have been 4-12 years old. The census found 45.6% Catholic, 36.3% Protestant and other Christian (incl Christian related), 0.7% other [non-Christian] religion, 10.1% no religion and 7.2% religion not stated. However, TEO said “there is no attempt to align the numbers of participants with the % make-up of the general population. To try and maximise opportunities for young people to meet other young people from other communities, specifically the PUL and CNR communities, we encourage groups to have as even a split as possible within their projects.”
While clearly there is benefit in facilitating introductions between young Catholics and Protestants – largely needed due to segregated housing and schools – there is a need to be representative of society for the participants to understand that indigenous identities are not a binary choice.
The labelling of these participants reinforces a prejudice, and denies independent thought. The Evaluation Report shows that the young people have been asked questions about attitudes toward Catholics, Protestants and Ethnic Minorities. This is reductive of wider society, most notably erasing the non-religious. There is also a great deal of social research highlighting the ‘in-group bias’ displayed when social categories are assigned to people, which is why the input of leaders is a concern.
There was a Pilot Programme of TBUC Camps held in 2015. The Pilot Evaluation Report recognised the need for diversity, and difference of opinion, to get “an external perspective in terms of reflections on the conflict in NI / divisions between the two main communities in NI that helped to frame the debate in a broader global context. It was also evident that for the generation of young people involved in the camps, some viewed good relations in a broader global context (e.g. inclusive of racial equality issues) with the debate about the divisions between the two main communities in NI (i.e. PUL/ CNR) more ‘of their parent’s generation’.” However, this diversity was limited – “for all of these reasons it is important in future that the programme remains welcoming and accessible to participants from a BME [Black/Minority Ethnicity] background and that the nature of the good relations content is not overly prescribed”.
In my opinion, TEO has made a mistake in adding political labels to these young people. This is symptomatic of a wider failure to recognise that this society contains people who are not religious or nationalistic, who are not ideologically immovable based on their religion, or that of their parents. This is a binary which is reflected across nearly all the political architecture of Northern Ireland, and which we would do well to not have our children inherit. So the question must be asked – how can our good relations infrastructure reflect the fact that many young people might want to break out of categories, rather than simply reinforcing the idea that they must meet people from the so-called ‘other side’.
Technical Note: Census Statistics
I’ve previously written articles about the NI Statistics and Research Agency’s (NISRA) highly questionable census output ‘Religion or religion brought up in’, most recently when the media widely reported NI as 48% Protestant and 45% Catholic – without advising that the statistics are inflated by regressing people of no religion, and imputing a ‘religion brought up in’ for people who didn’t answer the optional religion questions. The 2011 Census ‘Religion’ data shown above reported 82.6% of 4-12 year olds as ‘belonging’ to a religion, however the ‘Religion or religion brought up in’ data sees this increase to 90.5%. To achieve the higher figure, NISRA has allocated a ‘religion brought up in’ to the 14818 children whose parent/guardian did not disclose an answer, as well as to 1225 of the children reported to NISRA as belonging to no religion. This means NISRA is deciding the ‘religion brought up in’ for almost 8% of these children, including some they have specifically been told are not being brought up in a religion.
Even pre-school children are subjected to the practice. With 76.1% of 0-3 year olds reported as ‘belonging’ to a religion, but 86.2% having a ‘Religion or religion brought up in’. NISRA is deciding the ‘religion brought up in’ for more than 10% of this baby and infant cohort – 9560 whose parent/guardian did not disclose an answer, and 557 who were identified as belonging to no religion. I argue it is wrong to assimilate people into religious backgrounds, and that it breaches the right to free self-identification as guaranteed in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM Article 3), but it is truly bizarre that a 1 year old child reported as belonging to no religion should be classified as being brought up in a religion by state statisticians.
Printmaker, market trader & occasional TV/Film extra. Often criticising NI census legislation or interpretation, which treats citizens by religious background.