The figure of 43 percent had a historical resonance for the Unionist community. In 1920, Sir James Craig, later to be Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, had rejected the notion of a nine-county state on the basis that since 43 percent of the population would be Catholic, it would be ungovernable. When Craig became prime minister it was of a six-county state with a built-in Unionist majority of roughly two-thirds. But states based on numbers are founded on shifting sands.
Once more, eighty years or so onward, the North is bracing itself for another set of census figures, expected to be released on Thursday, Dec. 19. What the 2001 census will show is still a secret, but speculation is rife that the number of Catholics calling Northern Ireland home will have risen to 46 percent, while Protestants will have slipped below 50.
In a normal society this would hardly matter. But in the sectarian, segregated world of Northern Ireland, it is of vital importance. Had Catholics and Protestants been able to live together as trusted equals, Unionists would have nothing to worry about, and Catholics would have nothing to gloat about, as they watch their two populations reach parity. But Northern Ireland was never that way. If anything, segregation is worse than ever, distrust especially within the Unionist community has deepened, and sectarian tribalism is now politically entrenched. Every advance made by one side is seen as a blow against the other.
The new statistics, should they turn out as expected, will be viewed in this context. They will be used as evidence that nationalists are winning and Unionists losing. Unionists have already started demanding that the rule that the decision to stay within or leave the United Kingdom should be based on a simple majority be changed. Not surprisingly, nationalists are saying no.
It need not have turned out in this manner. After all, Northern Ireland has had eight years of a peace process, and four years since the signing of the Good Friday agreement for its people to learn to work together in government and elsewhere. Instead of which, of course, those eight years have seen a series of increasingly angry squabbles, with three governments collapsed, and fingers of blame wagging across the sectarian divide.
The real danger is that in the course of making progress toward a possible majority nationalists will find themselves confronted by another angry minority, a mirror image of themselves.