So what's the political future?

Data provided by the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency

Data provided by the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency

While unionism in Northern Ireland is in thrall to a row over the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall, new census figures reveal the Protestant proportion of the population has dropped below the symbolic 50% mark for the first time. The Detail’s Steven McCaffery reports on the complex implications.

PETER Robinson may not have known of the exact results of the latest census figures – but the DUP leader certainly saw them coming.

His party conference speech two weeks ago could have been drafted with the stark findings in mind: the Protestant population falling to a record low of 48%, as Catholics hit a high of 45%.

But his call for the DUP to preserve the Union by helping sympathetic Catholics feel at home, has been derailed by the violent crisis over flying the British flag.

The 2011 census will be remembered as the moment that Northern Ireland ceased to be led by a “majority community”, and instead saw the Protestant and Catholic blocs placed on a par.

But below the headline figure, the inclusion in the census for the first time of a question on national identity points to a nuanced position within the Catholic community – with one quarter of the overall population now definitively describing themselves as `Northern Irish’.

CHALLENGING OLD CERTAINTIES

The census shows:

:: 48% of the population are either Protestant or brought up Protestant – the first time the figure fell below the symbolic 50% mark – dropping 5% from the last census in 2001.

:: 45% are Catholic or brought up as Catholic, representing an increase of 1% on a decade ago and 7% on the 1991 figure, confirming a longstanding upward trend.

:: 7% belonged to another religion or none – a doubling of the previous number describing themselves as from neither of the major backgrounds, which may help explain the drag on Protestant numbers but which requires further exploration.

:: The highest proportion of people in neither camp is in North Down (12%), Carrickfergus (10%) and Ards (9.4%). Each are strong areas of support for the cross-community Alliance party, which is being targeted in the flags row as The Detail reported here.

Questions on national identity which were added to the UK-wide census have no information on the religious affiliation of respondents, but do point to a complex mindset inside the Catholic community.

It shows:

:: 40% are British only, 25% identify themselves as Irish only, while 21% choose Northern Irish only as their national identity.

:: The choice of Northern Irish appears across Northern Ireland, reaching 28% in Omagh, and 17% in Ballymena and Carrickfergus.

Those who choose a selection of national identities to describe themselves show:

:: 6.2% are British and Northern Irish only

:: 1.1% are Irish and Northern Irish only

:: 1% are British, Irish and Northern Irish only.

:: While 0.7% are British and Irish only, leaving 5% in the category of other.

The mix of overlapping identities reveals that 48% of people included British as a national identity, while 29% included Northern Irish and 28% Irish.

Figures provided by the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency

Figures provided by the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency

MAKING SENSE OF THE NUMBERS

Dr Ian Shuttleworth of Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Geography, Archaeology & Palaeoecology says he is surprised by some of the results.

“There are some things that are expected – there has been a slight increase in the Catholic proportion of the population – and that’s expected because there’s been an increase, really census by census since 1971.

“A little bit more surprising is the decline in the share of the Protestant population – so we’re not dealing with two groups which exceed 50% now – we’ve got two groups which are sort of, not exactly evenly matched, but which are both very large minorities of the population.”

He adds: “But what surprised me was the size of the people who declare themselves to have a Northern Irish identity – which is running the Irish part of the population very close in third place.

“I was very surprised by that and I’m not sure what that means.”

He adds: “Without that question in the past, the religion figures tended to be seen almost as a competitive football match – the headline was “It’s 53 Vs 44” in 2001.

“Quite clearly that sort of headline wouldn’t work now because we’re 48% and 45% of the population.

“But more than that, the census questions allow people to say whether they feel themselves to be Irish or British or Irish and British, or to express different shades and overlaps of identity.

“And that clearly needs a lot more thought, in terms of political strategies and in terms of making sense of what those figures actually mean academically and politically.”

The prospect of a census in 2021, coinciding with the centenary of Northern Ireland’s creation, is currently under review by the UK government.

Further data is to be released next year, including on the age-profile of the Protestant and Catholic communities.

But what do the latest results tell us about Northern Ireland’s future trajectory?

The statisticians are careful to spell-out that they deal in hard data, not predictions.

But the answer might be found in the explanation offered by the Head of Census Robert Beatty for the sharp decline in Protestant numbers.

“If you look at the 2001 census…. Among the elderly there are twice as many Protestants as Catholics,” he says.

“Most deaths occur in the elderly population. So if you apply age-specific mortality rates from the 2001 data, you would expect more Protestants to die than Catholics.

“If you look at the figures published by the Department of Education, it shows a majority of Catholics on the school register.

“You add those together…”

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The sectarian headcount is a long held, if uncomfortable reality of Northern Ireland political life.

The numbers do not prove the Union is in imminent danger, but they do not prove it is safe forever in its present form.

The only certainty is that the data fuels the notion that further political reform is likely over the next decade.

Most unionists and nationalists have learned to share Northern Ireland politically, but many are still uncomfortable sharing it culturally.

It will be next March before data cross-referencing religion and national identity is released.

Sinn Féin says a border poll would help “make sense” of the messages in the census.

But the new census figures show that equating Catholic identity with Irish nationalism is not a simple read across.

If Peter Robinson reflects on the census findings and on his speech, he may take comfort in the fact that his basic analysis on the future of the Union was correct, as the detail reported here.

The conflagration over flag-waving, however, has again caused Catholics to wonder what kind of red-white –and-blue Union they’d be signing-up to.

They say in politics timing is everything.