For seasoned observers of Northern Ireland’s political landscape, it comes as no surprise that the Catholic population there is growing faster than the Protestant. For several years, in fact, Catholics have been in the majority in the four counties west of the River Bann. Northern Protestants, meanwhile, have been moving increasingly to the northeast. This demographic shift has largely been reflected in the political representation of the various constituencies, with the North’s three cities — Belfast, Derry and Armagh — and at least 13 of the 26 local council areas now having Catholic majorities.
What is surprising, however, is the rate at which Catholics seem to be overtaking Protestants. Beginning a decade ago, after the last census, conventional wisdom had the population breakdown at roughly 60-40 Protestant, with Catholics closing. In reality, the difference may have been much less than that, and closer to just a few percentage points today. Though the North’s newest census figures won’t be available until later this year, David McKittrick, a journalist writing last week in the London Independent, said he believes the scorecard reads 50 percent Protestant, 46 percent Catholic and 4 percent “Other.” What’s more, he noted that the Protestant majority may evaporate within 10 years.
These, of course, are all interesting numbers. And no doubt the changing demographic has influenced, and will continue to influence, people’s political behavior throughout the North. Indeed, many believe that some Unionist support for the Good Friday agreement in 1998 was the result of a recognition that a Catholic majority, and thus perhaps an eventual united Ireland, was inevitable. For these politicians, negotiating a good deal for their constituents was paramount at the time. That belief — or fear — may continue to bolster the peace process.
On the flip side, the numbers shift can also be viewed as an ominous sign. For some on the Unionist side, especially in those working-class loyalist areas that sit cheek by jowl with republican-dominated neighborhoods, a siege mentality is already well formed and continues to be nourished by demagogues like the Rev. Ian Paisley. Witness the protests against Catholic schoolgirls at the Holy Cross school in the Ardoyne section of North Belfast. If the peace process is ever going to slip back into violence, the flashpoint will likely be a setting such as this.
But violence can and must be avoided. Recent statements made by Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness while in New York, in which they spoke of the necessity of Unionist “consent” before there can be a united Ireland, is the kind of pragmatic, even magnanimous gesture that will be required by all sides.
And yet in the long run the real success of the peace process will be determined not by the population numbers, but, rather, how readily the people of Northern Ireland can abandon their preoccupation with them. In a true democracy, things like a person’s religion don’t matter — or matter very little. What’s important is the common good, which is debated among political parties that exist based on their positions on a broad range of issues affecting their constituents. In the North, where religious beliefs have long determined the political, change will come slowly. But come it must. It is all much easier said than done, but in the end, it is the only answer for Northern Ireland.
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