Brendan O’Leary – How not to engage in public discourse as scholars…

Brendan O’Leary is the Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania

Professors Coulter and Shirlow are unnecessarily rude, and conspiratorial. The suggestion that I read from a “script” produced by the organizers among Ireland’s Future is false, and mildly insulting. No one suggested what I should say, and those who know me regard me as my own person. As far as I know no one at the conference was guided let alone instructed on what to say. Time-limits were the sole emphasis among the organisers.

As the opening presenter in the brief fifteen minutes I had available to speak—not read—I focused on three thematic trends that make 2030 the earliest moment for a referendum likely to pass to pass in favour of unification in the North. Namely, demographic change, electoral change, and the long-run repercussions of Brexit. Earliest, and not guaranteed. Here I was reprising themes from my book Making Sense of a United Ireland. I noted that demography was not destiny, that electoral change has been significant since 1997, especially for ‘the big U’ unionist bloc, and that the unfolding consequences of Brexit have aligned ‘the others’ and Northern nationalists on social liberalism and a pro-EU orientation.

There were technical problems with my presentation. Fuses blew—not because of the content! These problems temporarily blocked the movement of my slides on three occasions. So, the pertinent slide regarding demography is reproduced here, below.

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The key passages are to the left-hand side of the graphic. The slide refers to the cumulative net lead of one group over another. The graphic shows the cumulative demographic lead of cultural Catholics over cultural Protestants in the 2021 census (rising in the younger cohorts and then falling in the older cohorts). It makes the obvious point that by 2030 the arrival into the electorate of the cohort aged 8-17 in 2021, complemented by a higher proportional Protestant death-rate among those aged over 65, will mean that there will be a non-(cultural) Protestant majority in the electorate (as opposed to population) by 2030. I made the normal demographic cautions about migration and emphasized the potential decisiveness of recent arrivals in any future referendums: whence my line about the pivotal Lithuanian, apparently picked up in BBC reporting. I also included the possibility that immigration might mean there will not be a cultural Catholic majority, so both nationalists and unionists have strong reasons to accommodate recent immigrants.

I concluded the quick demographic sketch with the slide below, which should be readable without extensive commentary. It explicitly suggests that the world Coulter and Shirlow emphasize, and appear to like, is one possible world: a three-bloc world, with no decisive impetus to a united Ireland. But another is feasible, namely a two- and a-bit bloc world, in which the current ‘don’t knows’ line up in favour of unification, a world that I think is feasible, and which I have argued requires prudent preparation by the Government of Ireland. And, as the slide makes clear, I advocate a multi-party, pluralist approach toward unification advocacy, in which the ‘others’ will be a vital target for persuasion—by both nationalists and unionists.

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Coulter and Shirlow have published elsewhere in a very similar vein to their polemical submission to Slugger O’Toole. I was not a referee for that journal article. Had I been, I would have made four observations.

  1. They attribute the recent rise in cultural Catholics almost entirely to a shift among those who used to tick ‘not stated’ to those who ticked Catholic or brought up in a Catholic household. This argument is speculative, which is not to say that it is automatically untrue. They scarcely acknowledge, however, the degree of coordination required to make cultural Catholics far far more likely than cultural Protestants to have made this shift in individual census reports. But, as suggested above, they would appear to share a conspiratorial cast of mind about those cultural Catholics who are nationalist. To be fair, they do try to support their claim with a residential argument—the ‘not stateds’ were found more in more Catholic wards—but they do not properly acknowledge this argument’s vulnerability to “the ecological fallacy.”
  2. If one set out from the premise (i) that all or a very high proportion of the past respondents who were ‘not-stated’ were Catholics, and then made the additional premise (ii) that all or a very high proportion of the current ‘Nones’ are cultural Protestants, then one would get the ‘results’ that approximate what Coulter and Shirlow deliver in their article. Skeptics will ask: what is the probability that both premises are correct—and to the right extent? Differently put, weren’t there significant numbers of not-stated among cultural Protestants? And aren’t there high numbers of cultural Catholics among the Nones? Don’t we know from comparative evidence that when Catholics secularize that they do so very fast? Consider Quebec and Spain—and the Republic of Ireland. In short, Coulter and Shirlow are far more speculative than they suggest with their rhetoric of supplying just the facts.
  3. If I read Coulter and Shirlow’s article correctly they would appear to miss the significance of children currently enrolled in Irish-medium schools. Admittedly the numbers enrolled are not enormous, yet despite remarkable goodwill from Linda Ervine and others I suspect most of those children are from cultural Catholic households.
  4. Catholics might not be a majority in any one specific age group, but the 2021-22 school census gave a school Catholic population of 177, 843 out of a total of 353, 818 pupils, or 50.2%( NISRA 2021: Table 5). These numbers included funded nursery and preschool pupils.

I did not significantly address ARINS or other public opinion surveys and polls in my presentation. I don’t believe I can say much that is social scientifically credible about public opinion in 2030 based on current surveys, and nor can anyone else. There are far too many future events for which we can have no credible statistical controls. What I can do is look at long term demographic and electoral data and note the high numbers of don’t knows in current surveys—and speculate on the long-run consequences of Brexit in undermining confidence in the UK economy and polity, and on how the dramatic net improvements in life-chances in the Republic will make unification an increasingly attractive option, especially but not only to cultural Catholics.

For the record, I am not a millenarian—and have been irreligious since the age of 16. I did not meet any millenarians at the conference in Belfast on June 15. Why Coulter and Shirlow want to characterize the organisers, or speakers, that way I do not know. It is discourteous. I explicitly began my brief talk by warning against prophets who claim to know the future and made my argument in probabilistic terms.

If Coulter and Shirlow want to laugh with me and at some of my arguments accurately, I suggest they try Paddy Cullivan’s “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Ireland.” It was one of the highlights of the conference (video below).

YouTube video


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