Hamster wheel of demographic politics #2: In spite of Brexit, Britishness still predominates in Northern Ireland

The response to the first part of what looks like it might be a three part series my analysis of the latest academic output on the NI Census of 2021, was distinguished by a lot of people asking who ever said that demography matters?

The critical before and after commentary of the last three censuses documented in the Slugger archives are unambiguous. Mitchel McLaughlin predicted on 16th December 2002 Protestants would dip below 50%, and were “nervous and uncertain”.

Three days later he admitted on UTV News that no one he knew of had argued that the figures would “provide the evidence that constitutional change was about to happen tomorrow”. This talking up, talking down pattern in the census cycle has remained.

A few years later on an early morning slot on BBC Radio, Mitchel inadvertently disclosed his inner rationale in remarkably similar language:

…asked to explain exactly what Sinn Féin had achieved for its supporters, media-disaster Mitchel spluttered for a moment before blurting out: “The degree of uncertainty and the lack of confidence in the unionist community!”

John Finucane MP told an audience in Boston “make no mistake about it – academia, civic society, business – lots of different areas in our society are having this conversation, and I think the pace of change will only gather in the years ahead.”

Demography is it, it seems, until it fails to deliver the message that folk want to hear.  This work has much to say about the subtle ways in which lived experience in Northern Ireland has been changing radically, and at the same time, oddly, staying the same.

The question on nationality only came in for the first time in 2011 (which is probably one reason I didn’t put as much store on it at the time as the wider media did). It’s only when you have established a baseline that you can hang robust analysis on it.

It might explain when such sensitive a political issue in Northern Ireland passed with such little comment at the time. As the report notes:

Its inclusion was primarily a response to a range of bureaucratic pressures, not least the demands of the EU that member states monitor the citizenship of all residents after the incorporation of the Accession states.

One startling finding is how Brexit (a British nationalist project par excellence) has managed to make Britishness less rather than more popular. And not just amongst pragmatic Catholics, but amongst younger progressive former Protestants.

Indeed, the number of people defining themselves as “British Only” fell from 39.9% in 2011 to just 31.9% in 2021. Now at first glance that looks like lots of former Brits jumping ship and moving to the in between place where they might seek “conversion”.

Since this fall in British Only (8%) is not matched by the fall in the overall decline in the Protestant population (4%). Brexit did not only affect trust levels in an increasingly remote Westminster, but it had an effect on “Catholic Britishness” too.

In 2011, 109,444 Catholics identified as British. The authors offers the plausible explanation that many answered in terms of actual citizenship rather than nationality. But they also argue the threat of a hard border persuaded many to jump citizenship.

The result is a sharp decline in the numbers of Catholics now willing to acknowledge a sense of Britishness, so the marked decline in Britishness is no simply of one ethno-religious group giving up on the desirability of the identity, but both.

It is accompanied by an ascent in the number designating as Irish (3.8%) or Irish in combination with another national identity (4.9%).  The report notes ownership of Irish passports amongst Catholics flipped from nearly 2/1 British/Irish to 50/50.

Irish Passport ownership  rose amongst Protestants, but in a much smaller proportion. The biggest change (fivefold) was amongst those who possessed both Irish and British passports suggesting access to the EU was a prime motivating factor.

But this is one of themost critical points in the paper:

Those who hail from Protestant backgrounds are rather more reluctant to identify with their ethnoreligious lineage than those from Catholic backgrounds are with theirs. When we come to consider national identity, however, that relationship is reversed.

While members of the Protestant community routinely appear less confident or articulate about their cultural identity, they are nonetheless rather more likely to identify as British than Catholics are to designate as Irish.

That enduring paradox of Northern Irish cultural life has a critical political significance that cannot be gleaned from any of the data furnished in the Census returns. [Emphasis added]

And it’s followed by another important and related paradox:

While members of the Protestant community often appear divided and despondent over their political future, they are in fact rather more emphatic about what they want than their Catholic counterparts.

In a recent major IPSOS poll (Leahy, 2022), for instance, some 79% of Protestant respondents wished to remain within the United Kingdom, with only 4% signalling a desire for a united Ireland.

Among Catholics in the same survey, only a bare majority, 55%, indicated that they supported the reunification of Ireland, while 21% aligned themselves with the constitutional status quo.

This is the deadly dose of reality that the census itself keeps missing. Culture within mainstream society in Northern Ireland is hybridising rapidly under conditions of peace (as opposed to the peace process, which is trying retain key features of the past).

Protestant is diversifying and is in fact much more resistant to easy classification, much as Irish society south of the border has been on a much more obviously rapid journey of modernisation than its supposed counterparts in the north, Irish nationalism.

Irish culture in the south is now defined as much by Sky Sports as RTÉ with satellite TV beaming global culture straight into the areas of the western Gaeltacht where only a generation or two ago it was almost impossible to access anything but one channel.

Yes, unionist misadventures over Brexit that has put Northern Irish society through the wringer, there’s no signal or indication that unification is on the foreseeable horizon. The crude Protestant figure will continue to fall as they embrace hybrid culture.

But Britishness remains the single largest marker of identity, more of the dissenters are moving to Northern Irishness, rather Irishness, replacing as many of those Catholics alienated by the Brexit process who have moved to Irishness.

Finucane is right.  Change will gather pace in the coming years, but not of the type that his audience in Boston thinks. As for unionism, its reflexive defensiveness is not an appealing strategy, alienating their own people from a cause they profess to love.

Unionists still look as if they are just staving off the inevitable, thus handing a huge favour to their opponents. With minimal effort, nationalists keep unionists on the back foot, their energy dissipated on rearguard actions with little strategic significance.

Next week I will look at the third section and ask whether census questions continue to usefully inform us of ongoing reality, or whether if it simply holds all back in an antiquated ontological framework that’s increasingly irrelevant to the life of NI today

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

-Max Planck

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