The results from the 2011 Northern Ireland census have been eagerly anticipated because the Northern Ireland state was created, and continues to be justified, by a sectarian head count. Had partition not been imposed on the island of Ireland either through the independence of the whole island or through continued British rule the census would be interesting but would not in itself raise the question of the state’s existence or legitimacy. That the census raises both and by virtue of the religious affiliation of the people who live in it is in itself a condemnation of the Northern state.
The census revealed that the Protestant population has declined to 48% in 2011 from 53% in 2001 while that of the Catholic has increased to 45% from 44%. In order to arrive at these figures the 17% who said they had no religion, or the religion was not stated, were asked what religion they were brought up in. A sort of ‘you can run but you cannot hide’ from religion no matter how much you might want to. This is similar to employment monitoring which asked not what your religion is but what community you are perceived to belong to. The latter leads to mistakes if you happen to read ‘The Irish News’ in your lunch break and show a partiality to Glasgow Celtic when discussing football in the office but have never ever been to your first holy communion.
In the latest census 5.6% say they neither belong to nor have been brought up in any religion, up from 3% who said they belonged to neither religious category in 2001. The census of course is silent on whether anyone brought up in any religion, or who professes to be a member, has complete faith in that religion’s doctrines, respects its institutions and cadres, accepts and identifies with any of its associated cultural practices (like going to mass) or follows its leadership in any way. So even on this the census raises more questions than it answers.
The question that an answer is sought for most is the political views of the population, which has always been strongly linked to religious affiliation. The same problems arise in making any firm assessment of what this information means. First political views are read across from identification of nationality rather as if the latter determined the former in some over-riding way. However one can identify oneself as British and be appalled at the way sectarianism seeps from every pore of society and one can define oneself as Irish and still reject all the isms that supposedly accompany it such as Catholicism and nationalism. The full range of political positions in between are absent from the census as is beliefs on how ones political views are to be put into action.
The census is full of boxes and people, even in Northern Ireland, do not fit into them, or if they do they often do not do so neatly. The census itself is a means of forcing them to do so but because they don’t debate is now raging over what the figures mean.
So 40% said they had a British only national identity, 25% an Irish only identity and 21% a Northern Irish only identity. It was possible for example to tick two boxes and say you were both British and Northern Irish, which was ticked by 6.2%; 5% were none of these nationalities.
It is the combination of the religion and nationality results that has raised most debate. Are those that say they are Northern Irish mainly pointing to the fact that they are Irish but from the North, or simply as a matter of fact citizens of the Northern State, or are they saying that they recognise a separate Northern Ireland nationality that may or may not thereby warrant a separate state?
Commentators have noted that a large section of the population that are Catholic have not identified themselves as Irish but probably as Northern Irish and some no doubt as British. This information will be released later. From this it might be judged that even if they are culturally Irish (whatever that means) they are either happy with British jurisdiction or might be, given certain conditions. In any case they might not, if asked to in a referendum, vote for a united Ireland. They are what has been described by First Minister Peter Robinson as Catholics who support the union and who the Democratic Unionist Party could canvass for support. Many in this group however currently vote for nationalist parties – either Sinn Fein or the SDLP.
This however shows only the limitations of deriving conclusions from figures in a census. Robinson has made reference to a majority of Catholics who support the union. He has also prominently supported loyalist bands parading past a Catholic Church at which one band had previously stopped and marched round in circles playing a sectarian song. He also called onto the streets the loyalist mobs that have protested against the reduced flying of the union flag over Belfast City Hall. This has resulted in violent demonstrations, attacks – particularly on the Alliance Party – and death threats. Loyalist mobs have repeatedly blocked roads or carried out violent attacks. They have wandered round Belfast City Hall with union flags singing sectarian songs associated with old and new Glasgow Rangers football club supporters and burning Irish tricolours.
The unionists have done this on the basis that the union flag is their flag, a symbol of unionist and Protestant identity. The Catholics whom Robinson supposedly seeks support from are therefore being told to accept that the trappings of state are those of a different religion and alien political tradition. The party traditionally associated with the pretence to a non-sectarian union with Britain is the Alliance Party which the DUP and loyalists have made a main target of their attacks. So much for a non-sectarian Northern Ireland.
This week has also witnessed another report on the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane which revealed massive collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the state. The report, despite it being inadequate, has yet again revealed the widespread use by the British State of the most extreme sectarian bigots to kill anyone who gets in its way.
The report revealed that the forces of the British State in the shape of the army, police, security service and top level officials were all instrumental in murder. The prominent Home office junior minister Douglass Hogg set the scent by declaring, after briefing by the police, that certain lawyers were unduly sympathetic to the IRA and legions of later government ministers and politicians did their bit by strenuously denying claims of collusion. The report is unable to say how high up collusion went but is nevertheless sure that there was no overarching conspiracy. The Finucane family have pointed out that those most damned are dead as are the organisations most criticised. We are expected to believe that all this is in the past.
Unfortunately state collusion with loyalism never ended. The treatment of widespread loyalist protest over the past week or so has revealed yet again the partial attitude of the police to loyalist illegality and violence. The new police force declare that there is no evidence of the loyalist paramilitary leadership being involved while it is impossible to deny that the protests have been organised by these same organisations. The distinction between leadership and organisations is introduced to protect the leadership.
So we have the unionist movement claiming that the symbols of the British State are Protestant and another exposure of how this state has worked hand in glove with the most extreme bigots to kill those entirely engaged in lawful activity. In the past week the widespread but relatively small protests have been allowed to cause considerable disruption where, had it been republican protest, it is almost certain they would have been suppressed.
In other words the State to which Catholics are more and more assumed to owe some loyalty to and to identify with has been found, both through its most fervent supporters and its officially authorised defenders, to be guilty of the most rabid bigotry and violence. Therefore even if the former is true, and more Catholics are prepared to accept it, political developments may be such that is doesn’t matter what some people believe to be the case, it is what is actually the case that will matter. In politics as in everything else people are free to believe what they want but they are not free to make what they want actually be the case.
While the census results cannot be read simply to determine and predict political developments, and they cannot even be confident in population projections, the figures revealed have their own political impact.
For a state set up on the basis of a sectarian head count that head count is important. The publication of figures showing the Protestant population is no longer an absolute majority and the gap between them and the Catholic population is narrowing is a blow to unionist claims.
When the Northern state was set up Ulster Unionists had the opportunity to justify the Ulster part of their self-description by pushing for the inclusion of all 9 counties of the province within British jurisdiction. They did not because they wanted their hold to be secure and it needed a sizeable Protestant majority because the support of the minority was not to be expected. Now that the religious populations are so near in size it does not make sense to fight to make the state an expression of a sectarian identity if the purpose is to defend the union. It does however make sense if the purpose is to maintain sectarian power and division. It then makes perfect sense that even the slightest hint that within the Protestant community this sectarian solidarity is not primary should be squashed – hence the attacks on the Alliance Party.
On the other hand the census does not support a perspective based on a Catholic majority voting a united Ireland, at least not for a long time. The previous census results appeared amidst widespread speculation of a large increase in the Catholic population, an increase that didn’t materialise. This latest census has recorded only a small increase, albeit that Catholics are a majority in the youngest age groups. Even in purely demographic terms this does not mean an inevitable Catholic majority and in political terms the significantly lower proportion defining themselves as Irish hardly gives confidence that even a future Catholic majority will simply demand a united Ireland. This is especially so given that the Ireland that they might be united with is such an unattractive political entity.
With these alternative programmes and the near equivalence of populations the prognosis can hardly be one of stability. The need for some alternative is currently championed by the call for mutual respect and reconciliation but this is proving more than a little difficult. How can two mutually exclusive, even antagonistic, claims show respect to each other never mind be reconciled? The DUP and Sinn Fein have supposedly been working on an anti-sectarian policy for five years and there is no sign of it while it took the unionist parties five days to propose the union flag fly all-year round at Stormont.
This policy of reconciliation is actually accommodation of sectarianism not its eradication. Instead of the sectarian politicians being the solution it is unionist politicians who kicked off the recent protests. Reconciliation means Sinn Fein covering up for the worst of unionist aggression. So after getting the flag down (some of the time) Sinn Fein then votes along with those who created the violent protest in a hypocritical Assembly motion condemning violence, thus implicitly absolving the DUP and Unionist Party of responsibility. The flying of the union flag, as we pointed out here before on this question, is a means of intimidation. The purpose of it flying at City Hall as on every other Government building is to sanction the many, many more union flags that fly all over the North which tell Catholics that this place is not theirs and tells Protestants that their place is anti-Catholic.
The possibility of such a situation being compatible with a shared Northern Ireland national identity, much trumpeted by the media in the wake of the census results, is remote. The only identity that can be shared by Protestants and Catholics is one that expresses something that they have in common. What is it that they have in common that could possibly form the basis for such unity?