Why facts (should) matter when it comes to discussing our political future…

Colin Coulter and Peter Shirlow interrogate the overall data to question confident predictions around the future constitutional destination of Northern Ireland and come up some challenging questions for a popular media narrative.

On Saturday last, Ireland’s Future hosted the latest in a series of public events. In the Spring, the pressure group launched a document specifying 2030 as the ‘right time’ to hold a constitutional referendum. There is little discernible logic in the text as to why that might be the most appropriate timing for such a historic development.

That leaves us to conclude that the date has a purely millenarian purpose, an arbitrary moment of promised change intended to rally spirits at a time when opinion polls indicate that support for Irish unification has stalled. The persistence of that trend is captured well in the following independent verification from FactCheckNI:

 …analysis of polling over the past 5 years indicates no clear change in support for a united Ireland. It’s correct that there is no evidence of an increase in support for NI leaving the UK.

One of the first to take the stage in the SSE Arena was Brendan O’Leary. The political scientist had clearly read the script and dutifully echoed the timetable prescribed by his hosts. We are, apparently, living through the ‘twilight’ of the United Kingdom and 2030 is likely to prove a ‘tipping point’, the ‘best first possible date for a referendum’ that might mark the end of the Union.

That prognosis, predictably, relies heavily upon an account of recent population trends that is often aired in Northern Ireland but which is actually at odds with what is really happening here. In an early aside, O’Leary promises to remind the audience of ‘some basic facts of demography’ before proceeding to present what he sees as critical.

Here is an assertion made from the stage on Saturday:

…among those who are aged 8 to 17 in the Census of 2021, that cohort has a cultural Catholic majority and therefore their arrival into the electorate over the next decade will remove the existing cultural Protestant advantage inside the electorate.

The pattern of growth O’Leary discerns within the Catholic community has, he insists, been the source of profound forms of political change that are already apparent and will only become more so in the near future. Recent demographic trends have, he continues, ensured both a rise in the nationalist vote and that ‘from the end of this decade, cultural Catholics will be decisive in shaping political outcomes in the North, it will increasingly be in their hands to decide whether the Union continues to persist.’

There are, then, three connected claims being made here: the Catholic community is growing, that growth is reflected in the rising popularity of nationalist parties and will ensure, by the turn of the decade, that the conditions exist for a border poll that will, presumably, herald Irish unification. While all those assertions have been aired with no little regularity over recent years, none of them, in fact, stand up to scrutiny. Let’s take each in turn.

First, the ‘basic facts of demography’ in Northern Ireland are, in some critical instances, quite different to those described from the stage of the SSE Arena. Readers can see what is happening for themselves by consulting Table One below which documents the cultural composition of those under the age of twenty at the time of the last Census.

The data here confirm that the version of demography that O’Leary provides is simply inaccurate, premised as it is on trends that have not existed for a decade or more. While the familiar narrative of a rising Catholic birth rate was certainly true in the period covered by the 2011 Census (see those aged 10 or over), it ceased to be true early in the period detailed in the 2021 Census (see those aged 9 or under).

Table One: Religious Identity of Those Under Twenty, 2021 Census

The table above illustrates clearly that around a dozen years ago the birth rate within the Catholic community went into decline, in both absolute and relative terms. One key outcome of that critical, but widely overlooked, demographic shift is that Catholics are not, in fact, a majority in any age group in Northern Ireland. And that, needless to say, includes the 8-17 year old cohort that O’Leary specifies as emblematic of the supposedly unpunctuated numerical advance of the Catholic population.

While most commentary on the 2021 Census focused on the relative fortunes of the Catholic and Protestant communities, the most important developments in that period were, in fact, among those who recognise themselves in neither of those sectarian categories. The right-hand column of Table One above documents the expansion over the last decade of that diverse constellation of individuals variously described as ‘nones’, ‘neithers’ and ‘others’.

If we compare children aged 9 with those yet to reach their first birthday, we see an almost 10% rise in the number of youngsters being raised with no religious affiliation. In his address last Saturday, O’Leary only mentions the ‘nones’ in passing. Elsewhere, however, he has sought to depict those who are ‘neither’ as largely ‘amenable’ to the cause of a united Ireland. The evidence currently available to us would suggest otherwise.

It is a recurrent feature of surveys conducted in Northern Ireland that those who refuse the conventional binaries of Catholic/Protestant and Nationalist/Unionist emerge as strongly in favour of the constitutional status quo. A major recent research project headed by Jon Tonge, for instance, found that the ‘neithers’ favoured the United Kingdom over a united Ireland by a margin of 53% to 19%. Those sobering figures suggest that although nationalist commentators tend to see the ‘others’ as potential allies in the project of Irish reunification, they are likely to be disappointed.

Second, the contention made by O’Leary that the supposedly inexorable demographic advance of the Catholic community has transformed the electoral landscape in Northern Ireland turns out to be questionable as well. While the early years of the peace process certainly witnessed the expansion of the Catholic population, that has never been fully translated into party political support. In the initial elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 the combined support for the two principal nationalist parties was 39.6%.

At the most recent Assembly elections two years ago, the proportion of the electorate voting for Sinn Féin and the SDLP was just 38.1%, a figure that grows to 39.6% if we add Aontú. When it comes to the popularity of parties advocating a united Ireland, therefore, we are precisely where we were a quarter century ago. That the nationalist vote has essentially flatlined even in the face of historic demographic advances underscores that the connection between ethnoreligious background and electoral preference has begun to dissolve, albeit slowly, in Northern Ireland.

Counting sectarian heads no longer has quite the significance it once did.

Third, the claims that O’Leary makes about political agency in Northern Ireland also prove to be deeply questionable. It is certainly true that younger (‘cultural’) Catholics will need to be the architects if there is to be a progressive future for the region. But that gift, and challenge, does not rest ‘in their hands’ alone. The cause of political progress will require the talents and participation of a much broader range of players from a generation of young people who often refuse to see themselves in the binaries of their parents, who resist terms like ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’, whether ‘cultural’ or otherwise.

The problem for commentators, like O’Leary, who see a united Ireland as close to inevitable, and perhaps even imminent, is that those who came into the world after the end of the Troubles appear to have a different future in mind.

In recent years, O’Leary has been involved in the design and commission of several crucial pieces of research into the possible constitutional future(s) of Northern Ireland. Not the least of these is the pair of reputable surveys organised to date by ARINS, an academic research network in which he is a prominent figure. Both of these surveys have generated data that are quite dramatically at odds with the claims that O’Leary is wont to make in public talks like that last Saturday.

The most recent instalment, for instance, indicates that people in Northern Ireland are 21% more likely to vote to stay in the Union than to leave it (see Figure One below). It is hard to see how that aversion to the ‘pathway to change’ advocated by Ireland’s Future will disappear in the next generation, let alone in the next six years.

The data furnished by ARINS disclose also that the desire for Irish unification tends, in fact, to be weakest among those who O’Leary assumes will be its authors. Only 24% of 18-24 year olds surveyed indicated support for constitutional change, with 49% registering a preference for the status quo.

Figure One: Constitutional Preferences By Age, ARINS Survey 2023

It would have been very interesting indeed had Professor O’Leary chosen to air that brand new research in the SSE Arena on Saturday rather than the outdated demographic analysis he opted to present instead. The figures from the latest ARINS survey would, to borrow a phrase from David Adams, truly have thrown a wet blanket over proceedings. And that is precisely why, of course, those numbers were never going to see the light of day in such a setting.

While those involved in Ireland’s Future regularly proclaim their desire for a debate based on evidence, there are certain inconvenient truths that the alchemists of constitutional change remain unwilling and unprepared to say or hear.

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