What tomorrow’s census results will tell us (and just as importantly what they will not)…

If 2001 and 2011 are anything to go by some things are better said before the Northern Ireland Census results are released rather than after, when the parties [Any one in particular? – Ed] have got their talking points memos into the local newsrooms.

TPMs are produced mostly for narrow political purposes rather than for establishing useful facts through careful examination of data which a shrinking and impoverished local media are increasingly unable or unwilling to produce.

In the past some party spin has been comic.  Mitchel McLaughlin before the 2001 census were released just before Christmas in 2002 noted in the Belfast Telegraph on 16th December 2002 (note that strictly he’s referencing Protestants, not Unionists):

‘I believe that the census will confirm the pro-union population is shrinking to the extent that for the first time it will represent less than 50%. It is understandable that unionists are nervous and unsure about the future given the demographic trend will not prevent it.’

But then afterwards on UTV News on 19th December that confident prediction somewhat hit the skids:

‘I don’t know of anyone who was arguing that these census figures would actually provide the evidence that constitutional change was about to happen tomorrow.’

But Sinn Fein, as with their boycott of Queens Visit to the Republic in 2011, do learn from their mistakes. There’s been no such self confident prediction of dominance, just talk of border polls and or a Citizens’ Assembly on the way to a single outcome.

But the focus has remained on ethnicity, and the dropping figures for that proportion of the population that continues to call itself Protestant, without reference to other historic and contemporary forces that may be driving any such change.

In a 1998 paper exploring “the limits of Census-based empiricism and the unacknowledged problems of data and interpretation which have resulted in a seriously misleading ‘conventional wisdom’”, James Anderson and Ian Shuttleworth noted:

…there is a significant and growing proportion of the population which rejects the labels ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’ (part of the reason for ‘non-response’ to the Census question on religion).

This is due not only to increasing secularization, but also to more people wanting to reject or escape the assumed political and sectarian connotations of religion, seeing politics as a matter of choice rather than birth.

Secondly, 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 more marked than their cultural ones

Thirdly, the slippery concept of ethnic&y can be, and has been, easily misused to imply ‘natural’, biological and racist categories: British ‘settlers’ and Irish ‘natives’, existing in unbroken bloodlines since the Reformation, each group with its own immutable religious and political identity.

Note 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 never mind as one directional as often assumed in public debate.

What’s going on? I want reserve my deeper comments for the actual data when they are 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 has to be said, it’s not rocket science.

The term Protestant is (as has been the case in mainland UK for most of the late sovereign’s reign) is becoming less and less relevant even for religiously observant members of what we used to call the Reformed Faith.

As I argued in that review those areas which see the largest number stating they are neither Protestant nor Catholic are almost exclusively in majority Protestant areas (like North Down, 12% against an NI average of 5.6% in 2011 and 2.7% in west Belfast).

Politically in the last ten years whilst unionism has declined it has been replaced not so much by nationalism (which is stagnant) but by a form of post-constitutionalist politics, that has reached around 20% in recent elections.

Far from being driven by fear of the imminent arrival of a united Ireland, this, it seems to me, to betoken a re-emergence of a liberal tradition that drove land reform in the 1860s and 1870s, but which ended in a coalescing with the Tories in the UUC.

It may be that a felt distance from or lack of any serious political threat from Irish Republicanism’s ‘dream’ united Ireland that is untying many of these once powerful defensive bonds. It may also be a mundane but important affordance of the peace.

Tomorrow the real results come at 9.30am. Then we’ll know who got it right in our big sectarian headcount competition. After 73 entries, the average guesses stand at: Catholics 43% (41% in 2011); Protestants 38% (41%); Neither 20% (17%).

For further context, this is how those guesses read against the 2001 figures: Catholics 40%; Protestants 46%. Neither 14%.

Please do not read this or what follows as more than a fun game. It’s more a test of the robustness of public perception than any attempt to anticipate tomorrow’s results. In fact we will learn as much from the divergences as what our readers get right.

The neither figure is in line with growth over the last two decades, I’m less sure of the proportion of Catholics to Protestants. It could be explained by birth v death rates (Protestants have dominated the upper age percentiles, Catholics the younger ones).

Has the proportion of Catholics grown 2% in the last ten years where it grew by less than one in the decade before? It’s possible to believe the Protestant population will fall 3% against 5% in 2011, but that leaves limited scope for a 3% rise in neithers.

Bear in mind only half those marked as such in previous censuses called themselves Protestant. The rest answered as affiliation to a church: Presbyterian; Church of Ireland; Methodist; Other Christian. As observance falls, so do Protestant numbers.

Those defined as Catholics are counted by a single answer to the same question, rather than aggregated from several.  It’s not, as I say above, rocket science, but it’s dead easy to ignore if you’re sure you already know the story before tomorrow.

Well, whatever the figures are, I hope those charged with covering this story tomorrow will take some time to look into the complexities of Northern Ireland’s demography and consequences of reprinting seriously misleading ‘conventional wisdom’.

We have a choice: continue to reproduce an ethnicity narrative that splits our population into categories of British ‘settlers’ and Irish ‘natives’, or treat this as an opportunity of identifying shared needs in order to shape a future that better meets them.

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