By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — A debate has begun as to whether the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland will run out within the next 10 years, and whether this might lead to a united Ireland by 2015.
The issue burst into the public domain last week, months before the 2001 census figures are due for publication, after a report in a London newspaper suggested that “the mainstay of the state for eight decades” may be about to disappear.
Writing in the London Independent, David McKittrick, a longtime observer of demographic trends, noted, “The numerical supremacy of Protestants over the Catholic population has dwindled to no more than a few percentage points.”
He was immediately challenged by Ulster Unionist Party spokesman Stephen King, a senior aide to party leader and First Minister David Trimble, who questioned why McKittrick had written the article, which, he said, could lead to increased tensions within the Unionist community.
BBC Northern Ireland also broadcast a documentary last week assessing the demographic trends, concluding that Catholics would within a few years reach 50/50 with Protestants.
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Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, Dr. John Reid, told reporters in Washington, D.C., last week that the numbers cited by McKittrick were flawed. “And anyway, just because you’re a Catholic [in the North] does not mean you want a united Ireland,” he said.
The McKittrick and BBC reports give context to the recent speech in New York by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, when he said a united Ireland needed Unionist “consent and assent.” Last year, Adams predicted a united Ireland by the centenary of the Easter Rising.
Sinn Fein has increasingly been emphasizing the need for debate, which some of its leaders have had privately with Unionists, on the prospects for a united Ireland.
Two weeks ago, Jackie McDonald, a UDA leader in South Belfast, admitted that many loyalists believe there will be a united Ireland within 15 years and that the best they can hope to do is slow its progress.
Many loyalists, including the UUP’s King, accept the imminent demographic dominance of a Catholic majority. It was concern over their diminishing numbers that prompted many to support the Good Friday agreement, believing they should strike a deal before their numbers dwindled further. “It was right to go for an accommodation with nationalists in terms of the Good Friday Agreement,” King said.
McKittrick wrote that one statistician to whom he spoke calculated the population could consist of 50 percent Protestant, 46 percent Catholic and 4 percent “Other” within a few years.
“Another more cautious estimate puts the ratio at 51 percent Protestant, 45 percent Catholic and 4 percent others,” he wrote. “The private opinion of a third demographic observer is that Protestants may make up just 49 percent. One expert takes the view that, if the Protestant majority has not already disappeared, it will do so within a few years.”
McKittrick’s estimates are not based on the 2001 census, which has yet to be analyzed and will not be available until later in the year. But they represent, he said, the best-informed estimates available.
The remaining question is what effect the findings are likely to have on Northern Ireland’s political psychology, which is already characterized by pessimism and apprehension among Unionists.
The key statistic in McKittrick’s article is that, “Ominously for Unionists, statistics show a clear Catholic majority in the school-age population. Of children in Northern Ireland’s schools last year, 173,000 were Catholic, 146,000 Protestant and 22,000 other.”
Northern Ireland’s three cities — Belfast, Derry and Armagh — all now have Catholic majorities. So do at least 13 of the 26 local council areas and the four counties west of the River Bann.
Reacting to the article, King said: “Many Unionists have this idea that Northern Ireland is still very much a two-thirds/one-third society. That is wrong. Many times I go to Unionist meetings and people say, ‘But we’re the majority, we should have our say and that’s it.’ Well, it’s not like that; we’re going into a 50/50 society.”
King also said, however, that more Catholic voters did not necessarily mean more voters in favor of a united Ireland. “All that matters here is how people vote in a referendum,” he said, echoing Reid’s statement in Washinton. “In the 1970s, over 90 percent of people wanted to remain in the constitutional status quo, i.e. Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom.”
If there were a referendum held today, said King, he believes many Catholics would support the union with Britain.
The DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, was predictably more alarmist. He told the youth wing of his party, the Young Democrats, last weekend: “We need to organize our resistance. There must be no challenge to our union that we do not answer. . . . We must marshal the forces of resistance, determined resistance against all that is happening today.”
He claimed the constitutional position of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is under attack at Westminster and that the history of Northern Ireland is being “slowly erased” from schools.
Another author and commentator, Brian Feeney, a former member of the SDLP, said the demographic shift reported by McKittrick appeared sudden because both censuses in 1971 and ’81 were “badly flawed.” He said because of internment in 1971 and the hunger strike in ’81, the ’91 census came as a shock to everyone and made it look as though there had been a giant jump in the Catholic population, when in fact it had been much more gradual.
“The trend is moving quite inexorably toward 46-47 percent,” Feeney said.
Feeney cautioned that Protestants are “gerrymandering themselves” by gathering together in dense pockets in places like County Antrim and the towns of Carrickfergus, Banbridge and Limavady.