Category: Archive

Inside File: Playing the number’s game is now North’s top pastime

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

Have you hugged your nearest Protestant today? Perhaps it’s time to start producing bumper stickers with such a sentiment for the folk living in Northern Ireland. A hug-your-nearest-Catholic version could be made available as well. You could get one free with every gallon of gas, or petrol as they say there. It would be interesting to see how many drivers would stick them on their cars. Interesting to see how many would not.

Either way, it would appear that Protestants in the wee North are in need of a good reassuring hug. The problem for Catholics, in parts of Belfast in particular, is getting close enough to one. It’s hard to embrace someone over or around a “peace wall.” And Belfast has 27, and counting, of these wretched symbols of political division. The same walls, of course, mean that a lot of Catholics go through hug-free days as well.

Which is a pity. If you ever embrace someone physically it becomes a lot harder to chuck a petrol bomb at them. But the North, 2002 version, is a place full of mighty chasms, though never so big that you can’t bridge them with a stone hurled in anger. Must have been a tough calling to be an Ulster Hippie, even in the love-bombed ’60s.

The fears and suspicions of the North’s Protestants were brought into sharp relief on this side of the ocean last week by the New York Times.

A front page report by Warren Hoge was headline “Peace Gains by the Catholics Embitter Ulster Protestants.”

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Suffice it say, many Protestants perceive any gains by Catholics as a loss for them. This sense is particularly acute in Belfast.

What seems to be fueling these fears as much as, say, more jobs for Catholics, is the feeling among Protestants that their majority status is fast on the wane.

“A census out later this year is expected to show the Protestant majority down to 51 percent and the Catholic minority up to 45 percent,” Hoge wrote.

There is a sense in the North and beyond that the gap might be even narrower than this 6 percent.

An Irish Times report in early May, for example, reported that data showing increases in the voting population of nationalist-held constituencies and a decline in Belfast could bring fresh pressure for another constituency boundary review in the North.

“The figures, produced by the Electoral Office, and seen by The Irish Times, highlight growth in voter numbers west of the [River] Bann and in mostly nationalist areas,” the Times report, by the paper’s Northern editor, Dan Keenan, stated.

“The census report is not expected until later this year, but an outline report may be made available to the Assembly before it rises for the summer recess in early July. That report could confirm that significant demographic changes are under way,” the report added.

“The size of the Catholic population, roughly one-third of the total after partition, could now be around 45 per cent or higher.”

The North’s political numbers game is going to be like a snowball rolling downhill as this year draws to a close. The census figures have been ready and known for some time. If it was the U.S., they would have been trickling through the pages of the press and across your screens for months already.

But, as the BBC’s correspondent in Ireland, Kevin Connolly, recently put it: “There is nowhere else in the United Kingdom, maybe nowhere else on earth, where people talk about winning or losing a census.”

Very well put. That sentence should be plastered up on billboards from Ballymena to Beleek.

Connolly pointed out in his report that the results, when they are finally made public, will be subjected to a degree of scrutiny that would seem “faintly ludicrous” anywhere else.

“At the back of everyone’s mind perhaps, was always the thought that politics in Northern Ireland was always going to boil down to a crude sectarian head count. It’s just starting to seem that way a little sooner than anyone expected.”

Crude perhaps. But as long as we’re talking about the heads of living people we canwell, live with it.

It’s not all that long since a cold winter’s night in New York that Gerry Adams stood before a packed hall in Manhattan and predicted the statistical underpinning of a unified Ireland by 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

The idea that the future of the North, of Ireland in its totality, now comes down to a numbers game, is clearly taking deep root in the cross-border psyche.

Statistics, we are often told, do not lie. But it would be a mistake to see the numbers game in entirely “crude majority-minority terms.

There are Catholics who would hesitate to vote for a united Ireland, there are Protestants who do not see a long-term future within the United Kingdom.

Five years ago, some estimates put the “Catholic unionist” population at about 30 percent of the total Catholic population in the North.

Professor Paul Bew of Queen’s University now reckons the total is 18 percent and falling.

It would seem that as a united Ireland in some shape or form moves from possibility to probability, Catholics who might be viewed as being fairly comfortable with the status quo are less inclined to swim against history’s tide.

The same tide is likely to sway an increasing number of Protestants, reluctantly in many cases.

And then there are the “others,” the North residents who inhabit that gray area between Catholic and Protestant. Their numbers are increasing also. The 1991 census, for example, revealed a Muslim population in the Six Counties just below 1,000 residents.

There were also Agnostics, Jews, Hindus, Atheists, Buddhists, Sikhs, Greek Orthodox and several other categories identified and quantified in that census. And there were more than 2,000 people who gave the census takers an “indefinite answer.”

If it ever comes to a decision between the UK and the Republic these people could just as easily give a definite reply.

As for the North’s Muslims, the recent decision by DUP councilors in Ballymena to reject the gift of a brass plate with an Islamic art design was a classic example of the kind of closed-mindedness we have come to expect from the Paisleyite corner.

It would be deliciously ironic if, on the day of the big vote in 2016 or thereabouts, the result is balanced on a knife’s edge with some mullah, rabbi or Buddhist monk in Belfast holding the blade.

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