Some years ago I went to hear Noam Chomsky speak in Belfast. The title of his talk was “The Current Crisis in the Middle East”, but he quickly explained that that was just the all-purpose title he used for every talk he was invited to give. Usually his diary was booked for eighteen months ahead, and that particular title was likely to remain relevant at any time. In the same way, the title “The Current Crisis in Unionism” could have been used as a title for a paper at almost any time since the outbreak of the Troubles, and its shelf life has presently no date of expiry. In April of this year the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, was forced to step down following a sudden internal revolt in the party. Ten days later the leader of the UUP, Steve Aiken, was also forced to resign. To lose one leader of unionism might be thought to be unfortunate; to lose both leaders within a two-week period is a sign of a much deeper malaise. The turmoil that is roiling unionism has as its proximate cause the Northern Ireland Protocol, but the origins of the crisis can be found in trends that have been developing over decades.
Since we are now in a census year again it is instructive to look back at the 2011 census, which was a watershed moment for unionism. For the first time since the foundation of the state the Protestant population fell below 50 per cent, coming in at 48 per cent. The change has usually been seen as arising from the growth of the Catholic population, and that is obviously one reason: between the censuses of 2001 and 2011 the Catholic population increased by 10.8 per cent. The other reason, the one that has been spoken of less, is the decline of the Protestant population in that same period, a fall of 2.2 per cent.
Why were there fewer Protestants in 2011 and what does it mean for the future? The most important factor is the age structure of the Protestant population. The fact that it was still larger than the Catholic population was due to the ratios in the older age cohorts. In the over-eighties, for example, the Protestant/Catholic ratio was still two to one, the same as it had been when the state was founded. As you go down the age cohorts, however, the ratio turns round, so that in the younger age groups Catholics predominate. To put it simply, above the age of forty the majority in 2011 was Protestant; below the age of forty it was Catholic.
Another census published in 2011 presented an even more dramatic picture of demographic reversal, one which didn’t receive so much attention. Each year the Department of Education publishes the School Census, which contains a section on religion. While the main census only has an 86 per cent completion rate on the question of religion, the school census has more than 99 per cent. It is not completed by the children themselves, but by the parents (it might be more interesting if it was completed by the children, but it’s not). The 2011 school census showed that 50.8 per cent of pupils were from a Catholic background ‑ an interesting figure given its closeness to the percentage required for a United Island in a border poll. The percentage of Protestants was 37 per cent, down from 42.8 per cent in 2001. It could be argued that the figures in the School Census underestimate the true size of the Protestant population given that there is no particular incentive to declare your religion when applying for entry to a state school, and that many Protestants self-categorise as neither/nor. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the 51 per cent who self-categorised as Catholics are cultural Catholics ‑ whatever their religious beliefs might be.
In simple terms, half the school age population is Catholic, while only one-third is Protestant. Those cultural identifications are likely to stay with these children as they move up the age ladder and join the electorate. That is the essential fact that has to be grasped when considering the future of politics in Northern Ireland.
We don’t know, and we can’t know, what the results of the new census will be until they are published in 2022. It is hard not to want to speculate, but if we are going to speculate then it is best to build the speculation on some solid facts. In the 2001 census the gap between the Catholic and Protestant populations was 9.3 percentage points. Ten years later, in 2011, it had narrowed to 3.3 percentage points ‑ that was a gain for the Catholic community of six percentage points. If there were to be a similar leap in this census then the Catholic community would exceed 50 per cent.
That is unlikely to happen, for two reasons. The first is that the Catholic birth rate has slowed and is now very close to that of the Protestant community. The second is that more and more people from both the Catholic and Protestant gene pools are moving beyond the two communal identities and self-designating as neither/nor or as Others. That outflow is likely to lower the headroom for expansion of the two historic populations and will keep the Catholic population below 50 per cent.
What then are the ratios likely to be? As we have seen, the School Census is one useful indicator of demographic change. Another is an obscure document called the Labour Force Religion Study, issued by the Executive Office, which surveys the religion of all those in employment. The last study was published in 2019, using data collected in 2017. One table gives a breakdown of the population as a whole, including the over-sixty-fives and seems to be based on the answers given to the question on religious belief in the 2011 census. It shows two roughly equal population groups (Protestant 42 per cent, Catholic 41 per cent) with 17 per cent none or none stated. The really interesting bit comes when the data is restricted to those in the workforce, that is, the sixteen to sixty-four age cohorts, and this is based on actual survey responses. It shows the following percentages: Protestant 38 per cent, Catholics 43 per cent, Others 18 per cent. What it shows, in short, is how the waves seen first in the School Census are moving up through the workforce.
Let’s hazard some guesses about the future. The first is a safe bet, and it is that the 2021 census will show that the percentage of Protestants has slipped further below the 48 per cent it held in the last census. The second is that the Catholic percentage will have increased beyond the 45 per cent it held in the last census. There will be two groups of approximately the same size, but in all likelihood the Catholic share of the population will be larger.
Much then depends on the share of the “others”. Here it gets complicated. The census asks about religion in two ways. The first question is about your religious beliefs, what religion you belong to. The second question is about your community of origin, which faith community you come from. A person may have been born into a Methodist family, but now hold no religious beliefs. He or she is an atheist. In the processing of that person’s form, NISRA staff try to determine if they are a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist, and then they reallocate them to whichever community seems most likely to have been the community of origin (a procedure devised to allow for equality monitoring). In some cases that is not possible, and so there is a reserve category for “others”. In the 2001 census 14 per cent were neither/none but this was reduced down to 3 per cent. In 2011 there were 17 per cent in the neither/none category, but that was reduced down to 7 per cent. The increased secularisation of Northern Ireland suggests that the neither/nor group will be larger this time round, probably at least 20 per cent, but the reallocation process may reduce that down to 10 per cent.
One final group is made up of minority ethnic communities. There is no reliable data base for the numbers in that category, but they divide into three groups. First there are migrant worker communities from eastern Europe, who have a variety of religious allegiances but include quite a lot of Polish Catholics. The second group is the very diverse BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) community, who are likely to increase the Muslim and Hindu numbers. The third group is the “stock” ethnic community which has been here for several generations and mainly consists of Chinese and other Asians.
The existence of these four groups makes the final arithmetic much more complicated than the simple Protestant/Catholic split that has dominated public discourse on the subject. If we are going to simplify, then the 40/40/20 formulation best captures the movement away from a simple binary (though it requires the Other category to collapse both the neither/nor group and those from ethnic minority religions into a single category). The core reality is that no one community is going to be in the majority, if the term majority is taken to mean more than 50 per cent. We are moving to a situation of three communities: Protestants, Catholics and Others. The exact percentage shares of the pie are anyone’s guess, but 40/40/20 is likely to be too neat: the Protestant community is likely to be shown to be smaller in size than the Catholic community. When that realisation sinks in there is likely to be a sense of existential threat to the community that, one hundred years ago, had a state created that was designed to make it a majority forever.
When the Home Rule crisis was at its peak in 1912 there was much talk about defending Ulster, but there was no agreed sense of what territory would constitute a state with that name. A liberal MP, Thomas Agar-Robartes, put forward the proposal that the new state should be made up of the four most defensible counties: Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry. Viewed from the perspective of today, four unionist counties would seem a generous settlement. In fact there are only two counties out of the six that now have unionist majorities, Antrim and Down. When we look at the five cities in Northern Ireland the picture is even more stark. Only one of the five (Lisburn) has a unionist majority. Both our universities have Catholic majorities. And, as we have seen, the NI workforce now has a solid Catholic majority. The days of “a Protestant state for a Protestant people” are well and truly gone.
The dynamic in politics follows the dynamic in demography. Let’s look at two watershed events. The first is the 2011 census, which showed the Protestant population dipping below 50 per cent for the first time. Everything that has happened since follows on from that. There is of course a time lag in the political outworking, as a demographic shift is not immediately coterminous with an electoral shift, as it takes time for those aged under eighteen in the census to work their way into the voting population. But fast forward to May 2017 and there is the second watershed: the combined unionist vote (DUP, UUP and TUV) dropped to 45.7 per cent and unionism instantly became a minority in the Northern Ireland Assembly with forty seats out of ninety.
The electoral decline has continued from there. There were two elections in 2019, and the combined unionist vote flatlined at around 43 per cent: 42.8 per cent in the EU Parliamentary elections, and 43.1 per cent in the December Westminster elections. The most recent Lucid Talk poll, published in January 2021, sees support for the combined unionist parties falling further, to 41 per cent. It is unlikely that it will ever go above 43 per cent again. Moreover, the numbers and percentages don’t tell the whole story. In some cases the symbolic changes were even worse for unionism than the numbers alone. For example, of the four Belfast seats at Westminster only one is now held by a unionist, and that reduced representation looks like it may become a long-term reality. Parts of the city, like the Ravenhill Road, where Ian Paisley’s church once stood as a bulwark of Protestantism, now have a Catholic majority. There is a particular significance, a sort of “fall of the citadel” aspect to this that disturbs the unionist psyche. One can only imagine how Paisley in his heyday would have thundered in biblical language against the crumbling of the Protestant order, but no amount of thundering can change the cold facts of demographic rolls and electoral counts. Unionism is clearly in need of a strategy.
Lord Carson set a path for that political movement at the birth of the state when he advised the new government to show that “the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority”. Wise words, which were completely ignored. An historic opportunity for a reset came after the Good Friday Agreement, when the Catholic middle class embraced a new dispensation, one which would see them accepting UK governmental structures in exchange for the right to fully express their sense of Irish identity. They were never going to embrace Orange culture, but they were content to live as British citizens. Peter Robinson grasped that if there was never again going to be a unionist majority, there could still be a pro-Union majority. The strategically wise thing to do was to keep middle class Catholics on board; instead members of the DUP seemed to go out of their way to antagonise them with mockery of the Irish language, funding of loyalist paramilitaries, refusal to enact the Irish language act and, when in government, a display of majoritarian swagger reminiscent of the Brookeborough era.
And then came Brexit. “Brexit has come to dominate unionism,” says Professor Pete Shirlow. “They didn’t understand the implications of being Brexiteers.” Theresa May’s attempts to keep the whole of the UK inside the same arrangements were rejected in favour of striking an uber-British pose alongside the European Research Group. The unintended consequence has been an arrangement that may not place Northern Ireland on the window-ledge of the union (to borrow Tom Paulin’s phrase) but it is certainly not relaxing in the front parlour with the other residents. The people of Northern Ireland were once encouraged to believe that the region was “as British as Finchley”, but the people of Finchley are not blocked from sourcing Cumberland sausages, or Amazon parcels, or seed potatoes.
Unionism’s options for dealing with the Protocol are limited. The extension of the grace period allows some time for thought and for cooler heads to prevail. One possible direction is to accept that while the Protocol has its obvious downsides, the long-term advantages outweigh the immediate inconveniences being experienced in these first stages. They are, after all, being experienced by people of every political stripe, and a campaign to iron out the wrinkles would have much more chance of succeeding if all parties united behind it. However, there is little point taking this speculation any further. After some initial confusion and a qualified welcome (Arlene Foster described the Protocol on the Andrew Marr Show as a “gateway to opportunity”) unionism has decided that the issue cannot be decided by any calculus about trading concerns or market advantage; it is, rather, an existential issue about identity, about being fully British.
While that is an understandable concern, branding the problem as a unionist concern has had the entirely predictable effect of uniting all non-unionists in a single bloc. This has been the pattern with all issues in recent years, particularly those to do with the cultural wars ‑ abortion, same sex marriage, the Irish language ‑ and a form of polarisation has evolved which leaves unionism at one pole and everyone else at the opposite one. It is an unwise approach. The opinions of your opponents can perhaps be disregarded when you are a majority, but not when you are a minority. And actually, the problem for unionism is worse than that. If it appears to be standing on an ice floe that is shrinking beneath its feet, that’s because there is a growing number of post-unionist Protestants, particularly in the younger age groups, who have a broad identification with Britain as a liberal, secular state but are alienated by the ethnic forms and rituals of loyalist culture and no longer identify with the unionist parties.
What then can unionism do? The default position is to fall back on the 1912 playbook: rallies at the City Hall, muscular displays of paramilitary strength, portentous speeches, and all the other bangs and wheezes of that repertoire. For those who think this has any chance of working two words should suffice: flag protest. It is fortunate that the pandemic has made street protest impossible, but provocative acts by senior politicians like, for example, unilaterally removing staff from the customs point at Larne, are encouraging the idea that opposition to the Protocol can be ramped up into forms of civil disobedience. Bellicose statements from the Loyalist Community Council add to the sense that thunder clouds are gathering. There is undoubtedly some satisfaction to be had from working up the emotions of the base, Trump-style, but the only practical outcome will be to drive soft unionists into the Alliance Party. The net effect will be to further boost the chances of Michele O’Neill taking the First Minister post.
Two other avenues are being explored: the legal route and the political route. In May of this year at the High Court in Belfast proceedings opened in a judicial review supported by all unionist parties and assorted supporters like the former Labour MP Baroness Hoey and the former first minister David Trimble. The stated purpose of the review will be to determine the NI Protocol’s “compatibility with the Act of Union 1800, the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 and the Belfast Agreement”. The review, with the inevitable appeals, will take some months to conclude. There are two possible outcomes. One is that the case is lost, thus confirming that the Protocol is perfectly in line with legal and constitutional requirements. The other is that the case is won. In that scenario, the UK government is extremely unlikely to tear up the legal contracts with Europe which took four years to negotiate. The much more likely scenario is that legislation will be introduced at Westminster to correct any discrepancies. Either way, unionists are walking into an elephant trap of their own making. Their actions are likely to either confirm the legality of the Protocol or to enshrine it in new Westminster legislation. The law of unintended consequences, which has dogged all of unionism’s actions in the Brexit period, seems set to strike again.
Finally, there is the political route. Jacob Rees-Mogg, with typical insouciance, has suggested that there is no problem. If unionists don’t like the Protocol they can change it. The Johnson government made legal provision to allow the Assembly to take a vote on it after four years of operation. It was conceded that the people of Northern Ireland had not had an opportunity to vote on the Protocol before it was introduced, but under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly will be periodically asked to consent to the trading arrangements in articles 5 to 10 of the Protocol. The first consent vote is due to take place in December 2024.
Rees-Mogg, however, was being entirely disingenuous. There is no possibility of the Protocol being removed by the Assembly. A refusal to endorse it would mean that after two years ‑ that is in 2027 ‑ a joint committee established under the Withdrawal Agreement would have to make recommendations on how trade could take place without there being a hard border on the island of Ireland. In other words, the same old debates would have to cranked up again without any hope of any more satisfactory outcome. As Naomi Long put it, rolling Brexiternity. But it is simply not going to happen. As Rees-Mogg knows, the provision for an Assembly vote on the Protocol does not require any cross-community vote on the issue. It will be determined by a simple majority. We’re back to the same problem: unionists can at present command forty votes, non-unionists fifty votes. And the next elections are unlikely to improve the unionist share of votes. Any vote on consent for the Protocol will simply establish that it is supported by the majority of people in Northern Ireland.
Finally, the nuclear option. On February 12th, Peter Robinson put it out as a stark choice. You either work the Protocol or you bring down the institutions. In his words, you either “suck it up” or else bring down Stormont. You can’t, he told unionists, oppose the Protocol while at the same time being part of the administration that implements it. There may be a surface attraction for unionists in doing something as dramatic as bringing down the Assembly and the North/South bodies and tearing up the Belfast Agreement. What would happen then? A moment’s thought will tell you. The Protocol would then be operated by British civil servants. The gates of Stormont would be locked forever.
This is where the law of unintended consequences would be shown to its most devastating effect. Bear in mind the fundamentals of Northern Ireland politics. The Northern Ireland state was set up to offer security to unionists. At the time of partition Irish nationalists believed that a six-county entity was too artificial a construct to survive. It has now reached its centenary, but at least six of those decades have been spent in turmoil. The onus of proof has always been on unionists to prove Northern Ireland is not a “failed state”. Unionism has to show that Northern Ireland can work. Tearing down the institutions will not help. Tearing down the institutions when the whole future of the UK is under discussion, and when unionism is on its way to becoming a minority culture is suicidal.
The crisis of unionism at present may be fixed on the narrow issue of the Protocol. The argument of this essay is that it must be recognised that this problem has roots that go much deeper and implications that go much wider. One hundred years ago a new state was created because of the fears that unionists in the north-east of Ireland had about becoming a minority in an independent state. At this point, with a census under way, unionists will have to contend with becoming a minority in the state that was created for them. That will require deeper thinking and wiser leadership than we have seen so far.
Dr Paul Nolan is an independent researcher based in Belfast. He writes on conflict societies and the Northern Ireland peace process.