A Catholic Majority In The North?

The results of the 2011 census show that the population gap between Catholics and Protestants has narrowed significantly. In fact, at current rates, the Catholics will be a majority after 2016. This has the potential to significantly destabilize Northern Irish politics. The fragile peace established by the Good Friday Agreement could fall apart. Republicans are excited with dreams of a United Ireland and Unionists are terrified with similar nightmares. However there is the lurking threat of a return to violence and a second wave of Troubles.

In 2001 Protestants were 53% of Northern Irelands’ population and Catholics were 44%. The 2011 census (released yesterday) shows that the ratio is now 48% to 45%. For the first time Protestants are not the majority and are close to parity with Catholics. If trends continue (due to higher Catholic birth rate) 2016 will be the breakeven point, ironically on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Belfast is now a Catholic majority city. It is important to note that when asked 40% said they considered themselves British, 25% considered themselves Irish and 21% considered themselves Northern Irish. So not every Catholic is a nationalist.

The Other category will be important. Traditionally it was comprised of people who refused to state their religion (this was especially the case during the Troubles) but the recent rise has also to do with the rise of non-belief in Northern Ireland. There is the added complication of immigration a relatively recent phenomenon. After all a Polish immigrant may be a Catholic but that doesn’t mean he will support a United Ireland.

Of course not every Catholic is a Nationalist and Unionist politicians are quick to point to polls that show only a minority of Catholics want a United Ireland. So there is a chance that nothing will come of this. On the other hand United Ireland was never a realistic option that had a genuine chance of happening; the odds are reversed if Catholics are the majority.

Sinn Fein has called for a referendum on unification. But even if Northern Catholics want to join the Republic, do we want them? Northern Ireland is poor province with high unemployment, decaying industries, a scarred and violent past. The Republic is not far from bankruptcy. Is it me or does this sound like a recipe for disaster? Few polls have been taken of Southern opinion and they always involved hypothetical scenarios. We may few Northerners like relatives, nice to visit but we’d hate to have to live with them. A United Ireland is a nice idea, like if we all spoke Irish, but I’m not sure how many people would support actual moves to implement it. For example if people are asked if they would support a United Ireland if their taxes went up then support sharply declines.

Then there are the Protestants. The lovely dreams of a United Ireland and “Tiocfaidh ar la” ignore the fact that many Protestants would rather kill and die than join a United Ireland. In all likelihood a second round of the Troubles would break out, except this one would be far worse. Belfast would burn and Dublin might as well. If it took the British army 30 years to fight the IRA to a standstill, how is the Irish army going to fair against a million, angry, united and determined Protestants?

Many Republicans subscribe to the naive view that Protestants will welcome a United Ireland with open arms and we’ll unite as Irishmen and live happily ever after. Not a hope in hell. Protestants will welcome a United Ireland the same way the Arab world welcome an American invasion. Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other for 400 years; you can’t forget that like it never happened. Despite the best wishes of Republicans, Unionists are determined to never join the South. It is as unacceptable to them as British Rule is to a Southern Republican. Concessions (like the retention of Stormount) could be offered but any United Ireland scenario is going to involve violence. A quick examination of the facts of a large section of the population who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the state (and unlike the Catholics they haven’t been beaten into submission), with a history of violence, versus a small non-violent country shows that the result is mass violence and the possibility of the Irish state being overwhelmed.

I personally would rather not be dragged into a sectarian/tribal/religious war with the accompanying kneecappings, car bombs, murders and hatred. Especially when none of this is balanced by any actual benefits. I mean, what’s so great about a United Ireland? It won’t make my life or anyone I know life any better. It won’t solve our unemployment or banking crisis. In fact it would be nothing but a distraction from our real problems. A United Ireland was a lovely dream back in Michael Collins’ time but times have changed and the risk of full scale civil war is more trouble than it’s worth.

Nothing but trouble would come from a United Ireland. So if a referendum in the North voted tomorrow to join the Republic, I’d say no way, Britain can keep that problem.

33 thoughts on “A Catholic Majority In The North?”

    1. The main Catholic party (Sinn Fein) are calling for a referendum, but no one else is supporting them. It will be many more years before there is a solid Catholic majority so I won’t be holding my breath.

      The reasons for a United Ireland are the standard nationalist ones, that all the people of the island of Ireland should be united in one country.

    2. No the vote isn’t coming up, this unionist guy is just breaking down his distaste for the idea of one. Pay no attention. A single economy and civil service makes sense for the island. Re-unification is the only logical step forward and if the very very slim part of the unionist community that would reject this violently wants to do so, then so be it, though it would be my bet that the vast majority would emigrate to scotland or england given the knowledge that unlike the movement to create a united ireland, no such movement could succeed to return the 6 counties to the United Kingdom.

    3. When the state was formed in 1921 it had a 66 percent majority in 2001 it was down to53 percent 2011 it dropped to 48 percent in the same time span the catholic percentage moved from 33 percent to 45 percent it is clear that demographics are changing there will be a catholic majority in Northern Ireland it is no longer a question of IF but a question of WHEN

      1. Hey Robert Im just starting to read your posts today with much interest and commented on your one about the Irish language – I’m the poster from NZ. I cant even pretend to understand the politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but I am interested in whether eventually a referendum on the unification of Ireland will take place. Rather than Googling for this you could probably just inform me. The reason that I ask is that I worked with NZ population projections for many years. Ive just checked the ONS website on these for NI which says will get to 2 million some 20 years from now on current demographic trends, but what is missing is the religious affiliation split. Given that catholics have higher fertility rates than protestants isn’t it a demographic certainty that catholics will outnumber the protestants say in a 10 year time frame by a significant margin ? In this scenario, then surely the north will vote for unification with the south. I have no idea how that would play out so Im reading with interest your take on it. Ive just seen another reply on this point too. Cheers.

  1. 30% of the Northern Ireland workforce is in the public sector. Public spending exceeds taxes by nearly 40% of Northern Ireland’s GDP. What they need is some capitalism; I’d like to see the umbilical cord to the UK cut off so that they can learn to fend for themselves. Make them a fully independent nation. Once they get that and then realise that they need an economy that works properly, everybody will have better things to do than get involved in this sectarian rubbish.


    1. The reason for the large state sector is not socialism but the Troubles. Most of the public spending goes on police and military. Also Northern Ireland is the poorest region in the UK so transfer payments make up the rest. Interestingly, your link shows that Northern Ireland is the least taxed part of the UK (the difference is made up by the subsidy), so they do have some capitalism.

      Honestly, if the subsidy was cut, Northern Ireland would be more likely to collapse into chaos and violence then prosper. Without the UK or any major industry it could quickly drop to the level of an Eastern European country. While I wish sectarianism would go away, the past isn’t encouraging and its more likely that politicians would use sectarianism to distract people from their economic troubles.

        1. A nation of dependents? No, unemployment is high due to the decline of the textile and ship building industry upon which the economy was based. The Troubles also didn’t help. Northern Ireland is actually the opposite of what you think it is. It has traditionally not had a strong welfare state. Northern Irish politicians opposed most of the welfare laws past in Westminster as they would disproportionally benefit Catholics. In this sense, Northern Ireland resembles Southern states of America. Discrimination blocked any meaningful welfare state so people languish in poverty.

          Could you elaborate on why hey are a nation of dependents while the rest of the UK isn’t? (Despite sharing the same welfare state).

          1. I don’t know enough about NI’s history to talk about their historical welfare state (happy to admit when I know I’m not qualified to talk about something). I call them a nation of dependents because 40% of their economy consists of money which the government has spent but which has not been paid for by taxes from Northern Ireland. That is heavy socialism and it’s not surprise that they have such an ugly economy. Cut the subsidy and after they got over the short-term pain they might embrace a little bit of economic freedom in the way that Ireland eventually did.

            1. “Cut the subsidy and after they got over the short-term pain they might embrace a little bit of economic freedom in the way that Ireland eventually did.”

              Economic freedom?
              Ireland used the pound sterling as its currency until 1979, so its currency was run by the Bank of England until then. Ireland’s punt had a roller coaster ride until Ireland surrendered its fiscal independence to the ECB in 1999.

              Ireland joined the EU in 1973 – at the same time as UK because Ireland knew it could not stand on its own two feet. Ireland got €17 billion in grants from the EU from the Structural and Cohesion fund in the first three decades.

              Between 1973 and 2008 Ireland got €44 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy.

              In 2008 the Irish banks had lost €100 billion, and the country had to be bailed out. In 2013 government debt reached 123.7% of GDP.

              It’s is hard to imagine the mess Ireland would be in if it had to stand on its own efforts, and could not export its unemployed [often the best and brightest] via emigration.

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  3. It does seem a bit anachronistic to call for a redrawing of boundaries between countries which are both in the European Union. Wasn’t the original goal of that organization to give up the old idea of making boundaries just and replace it with the idea of making boundaries irrelevant?

    1. True though the Eu has not had the effect many hoped it would have. Whatever about the economic effect of the border, it has a huge impact on identity and therefore will remain important.

      1. Yes, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a terrible shame that the EU hasn’t been able to make the border between north and south less important, not only for the obvious reasons related to killing and maiming but also for the sake of the economic development of the north and the economic stability of the island as a whole. Besides, if there were less of nightmare about the border, the political culture of the north might become somewhat less bizarre.

  4. I agree that just having a majority catholic population will not suddenly result in a peaceful transition into a united ireland and, as a nationalist from Tyrone, i completely understand how people in the republic would be horrified at the thought of trying to assimilate a hostile violent unionist population, or at least the ‘loyalist’ element of it. It’s also true that not all catholics would necessarily vote for a united ireland, not immediately anyway.

    what is true however is that virtually no catholics vote for unionist parties, ‘irish’ or not. So there are a lot of areas in NI that are going to have their representatives change over the next 5-10 years. and traditional aspects of loyalist “culture” such as marches through contentious areas, flags etc, are not going to be approved as much as they were in the past. it is going to take a long time for loyalists in particular – who already consider the removal of traditional supremacist behaviour to be an attack on their ‘culture’ – to get their heads around the new paradigm!

  5. Mystic Meg himself. A UI would be brought about through democratic means. Therefore a sustained loyalist violet campaign would have little support. Have you seen what the Independent Monitoring Commission reports had to say about Loyalists. They are sectarian killers thugs but capable of a sustained civil war without support. I don’t think so. Yes im sure there would be trouble but talk of a civil war is scaremongering. Also have you considered the Republican reaction in the scenario of a Nationalist majority in the North and in South where a UI is blocked because of a threat of Loyalist violence. It would probably make anything Loyalists threaten look like a picnic.

    1. “A UI would be brought about through democratic means. Therefore a sustained loyalist violet campaign would have little support.”

      Well the vote on the UI would spiit on sectarian lines so it would be a matter of which group is bigger. In all likelihood the vast majority of Protestants would vote against it. Therefore any loyalist campaign would have minority support overall, but majority support in its own community.

      After all, it was the same with the IRA who had minority support overall but some degree of support in the Catholic community.

      “Also have you considered the Republican reaction in the scenario of a Nationalist majority in the North and in South where a UI is blocked because of a threat of Loyalist violence. It would probably make anything Loyalists threaten look like a picnic.”

      I highly doubt that. At the moment the status quo bias is working against Republicans, who after all have never been part of an Irish state. In contrast, it would be hugely drastic change for loyalists who have never experienced anything other than British rule.

  6. Robert, to put things in context I am English born and bred, but have closely watched events in Ireland for years so I can see that alot of what you say is true. But it also strikes me that whilst a large number of ‘unionists’ are currently firm in their wish to remain ‘British’, many of them are sufficiently realistic, moderate, and fair-minded not to die in a ditch if nationlists became a majority. There would indeed be a large number of diehards, but would they, I wonder, be so rabid if UK plc simply walked out. One way to deal with the problem, I suppose, would be to bring in an Afghanistan-type international coalition force (to police the whole of Ireland) with the same sort of reactive rules of engagement! But that’s fanciful as Britain doesn’t have a good history of inviting other nations to help sort out their problems! If we can’t punch people in to shape we normally just walk out and leave people to their fate!!
    One point you have not touched on is the fact that my country still treats nationalists in Northern Ireland with great insensitivity. For example about 99% of nationalists I have met categorically do NOT recognise either the British right to ‘rule’ NI, and they certainly do not recognise the Crown and all it’s trappings. I accept their viewpoint, and if I was in their shoes I would feel the same. Therefore if there is one thing that really angers me it is my own government’s policy of walking roughshod over these sensitivities and more or less forcing nationailsts to ‘bend the knee’. In truth, we have now (if not before) reached a point where in fairness NI deserves extraordinary status within Britain where such terms as ‘HM’, the Queen, Realm, Crown symbols, etc., etc., should be phased out. (e.g. interring a nationalist in ‘Her Majesty’s Prison’ is most certainly a metaphorical and medieval act of forcing a person to their knees in front of the Monarch). As you say, change is taking place anyway, but my government is going to have to ramp up the pace, like it or not, and face down the Unionists. Unfortunately, the rescinding of the OTR’s ‘indemnity’ letters is hardly a step in the right direction!
    One other point, looking at the last NI election stats, if one lumps all the ‘couldn’t-be-botherds’ with the ‘don’t-knowers’ and adds them to the nationalist voters (which you arguably could) there may already be a non-Unionist majority!!

  7. Some of your facts are a bit off.
    Here’s a genuine one
    46% of people in the north class themselves as Irish of some sort.
    Given the right conditions I think a united Ireland vote would be very close.

    It took the Brits 30 years to fight the Ira to a standstill,indeed you are right but you forgot to mention they had the help of various loyalist organisations,
    Collusion etc etc. without the British army the loyalist people would operate very ineffectively.
    Just a few thoughts

  8. What is the point of a United Ireland?
    Particularly in this day and age when the 6 counties, as part of the UK, are a region of the EU, and the 26 counties are also a region of the EU?

    Those who live north or south all have a passport with European Union on the top, above where it says Éire/Ireland or UK of GB and NI.

    They are all European citizens. They all can live, work and vote in each region or in the big island to the east, or anywhere else in the EU.

    Incidentally, there are more people of Irish birth living on the island of Great Britain than the total population of NI.
    De Valera once suggested ethnic cleansing, in that anyone who didn’t want to be part of a united Ireland should leave the country. Perhaps in return, all Irish of a republican bent should be sent back to Ireland, where they won’t have to live under the yoke of British rule.

    Ireland, South and North, and GB have surrendered their independence by joining the EU. London, Dublin and Belfast are branch offices of Brussels, and the real decisions about what happens north or south are made in Brussels, Strasbourg, Frankfurt and Berlin.

    Should Ireland be united just because it is an island? The big island to the east is about to decide whether to dis-unite.

    A united Ireland is like going to heaven. Everyone says they want to go to heaven, but if you offer them the chance to go right this minute, they generally say “Not just yet, thanks.”

    1. In reply to Redmond McDonagh, there is of course, in common with most peoples views on Ireland, north and south, some truths in what he says. However, equally in common with most people’s views, he oversimplifies the issues. (a) We may all be in the EU, but the grass-roots UK population would probably (and very misguidedly) vote to get out if given the chance. (b) The south of Ireland has embraced the Euro, whereas the UK hasn’t, with the result that friends, neighbours, relations, and even loved ones, whose homes and/or lives, businesses etc. straddle the border, have to live with the ignominy (and cost!) of different currencies. (c) The large majority of the population in the south are living with an administration and culture that they have chosen, whilst almost half the people in the north are living with, and under, a culture and administration which was foisted on them without their consent, and indeed by force. (d) Much of that administration, and certainly the Law, in the north is vested in HM the Queen, and therefore an anathema to the almost 50% of the population who are nationalist and republican, again by force. (e) Finally, HM the Queen has Sovereignty over the north, and therefore again an anathema to the almost 50% of the population who are forced to ‘bend the knee’ to a monarch that they do not recognise.

      So, to sum up, there is indeed a minor measure of logic in what Redmond says, but unfortunately those grains of logic obscure the much greater logic and truth represented by what he has NOT said!

  9. “But even if Northern Catholics want to join the Republic, do we want them?”
    Bit like 1922 then?
    “Northern Ireland is poor province with high unemployment, decaying industries, a scarred and violent past.”
    As was the Free State.

    As someone who was born in NI, I would have hoped that that those in the ROI would have welcomed those in North who were sold ou by their forefathers.

  10. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, all political parties in the UK and the ROI(aside from militant fringe parties) are committed to respecting the democratic process in NI. So if demographic changes result in a vote for a UI, the British and Irish governmrnts will be obliged to facilitate the handover, even in the face of violent Unionist protest. The cost would be the severest obstacle. Perhaps the British would, as part of its shame for its imperialist past, would underwrite this for a generation. Otherwise the EU or another international body would have to help, because an endemically poor country like Ireland would have no chance of financing the absorbtion of the North into its already basked case economy. Unfortunately this isn’t like German reunification!

    I think there would be another round of Troubles, but there would be no official support for it, because the voice of democracy would take precedence over any historical ties the Unionists have to Britain, so they would be isolated, and probably unable to carry out any long term military campaign. But a terror campaign of “Ulster Separatists” could last a long time and be difficult to totally defeat.

    But this scenario is still a long way off. In spite of the Catholic population reaching parity with the Protestants, there is little evidence that this translates yet, into votes for a UI. While 25% of those recently polled expressed a hope for a UI in 20 years time, only 7% want it now. And 59% don’t want it at all. For all that the ROI is based on a national consciousness of a 32 county republic, many in the South are content to leave NI as Britain’s problem rather than take it on themselves. It may happen someday, and depends entirely on the vishes of the voters of NI, not those of the ROI, but I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime (I’m 60)

  11. lot of the pints above have changed due to Brexit. just shows how insignificant the impact on NI was to brexiters…

  12. So Ive decided to use my demographic training to produce population projections of the number of catholics and protestants in Northern Ireland in the next twenty years using the official projections of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) United Kingdom with assumptions on fertility of the catholics, protestants, and other religious affiliations from the demographic literature. These will give a guide to when the catholics of voting age will have a clear majority. Stand by, I will build this model today. I also have to source, mortality and net migration assumptions to build the demographic model of population (t) = population (t-1) + natural increase (t-1,t). I will also check if anyone has done this before. The reason this is so important, is should there be a binding referendum, it will guide when the results would declare for re-unification of the island of Ireland. I am convinced it is a ‘demographic certainty’ that catholics will be in the majority soon, however, it is quite complex, since, the excess fertility rate of catholics compared with catholics manifests itself in the short run in the child age bracket mainly, not the age bands related to the voting age. I liken this to the ‘mathematical certainty’ declared by Thomas Andrew that the Titanic, built in the protestant shipwards of Harland and Wolf in Belfast City, would sink, following the calamitous collision with the iceberg on 14 April 1912. So stand by will post the results before the day is over !

    1. Note to myself: hmm didnt quite get this right. I did the percent of total population catholic, not the 18+. I will see what the model says for that : I expect will be a later year than 2043 that the catholics 18+ are in the majority.

  13. Hi again I have completed my projections work and the ‘demographic certainty’ that catholics will out number non-catholics is established. However, it wont happen until 2043 a generation away. By 2060 the model predicts there will be 54% of the population catholic. For more details see my blog site at http://celticandhistoryobsessions.music.blog.
    Ive sent it to the BBC so who knows it might hit the news ! Probably not and I wont hold my breath. I do this kind of thing for a living by the way, but in this case, it took me 12 torturous hours to complete it when normally I would take a couple of weeks over this type of model. Cheers.

      1. Hi Robert what do you mean ? The model I did is pretty crude – like a gigantic back of an envelope – but could be adapted to provide the protestant,’other’ split. Not that I know what comprises ‘other’ in NI – what other ethnic -religious groups are represented there ? ! By the way I updated the projections so that it will be around 2038 that catholics will form 50% of the population rising to 55% by 2060. I have now found another study which backs up my finding which puts the ‘tipping point’ year at 2036. It is in an article published in the Irish Independent https://www.pressreader.com/ireland/irish-independent/20180210/282106342098267. I commented on it. Ive sent results of my study off to quite a few places but no replies ! Since the issue is as big as Brexit I’m quite surprised. Cheers. Steve

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