Hamster wheel of demographic politics #3: ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’.

So, part three of my analysis of the Coulter et al paper. The thing about rigorous political analysis that’s rooted in robust data (and sets don’t come much more robust than the Census) is how it reveals what common or garden journalism routinely misses.

We have seen how the Catholic population seems to have reached its zenith, well short of the fabled 50%+1. And a rise (overall) in those describing themselves as Irish and Northern Irish and a fall in those who see themselves as British (thank you Brexit).

In trying to decode what this means, the authors caution that given the structure of its questions the census itself now “remains a rather less reliable guide to where the region, in a political sense at least, might be headed in the near future.”

It’s not that any of the data is false, indeed above polls and surveys, this is not a sample but the whole dataset. Rather the framing of the census over the last number of cycles has created a positive feedback loop which encourages certain responses.

The popular analysis which suggests the imminent arrival of a Catholic majority arises from a stark disparity in numbers with the Protestant group. In reality the census accurately only captures the secularisation of the latter, but not the former.

As the report notes: “as a consequence, we are faced with the paradox that while chapels across Northern Ireland have never been emptier, there have, apparently, never been more Catholics living in the region”. A false picture can feed false narratives.

Rather than “seismic” (which implies an unstoppable breakthrough) the latest census points towards the very existential “stalemate” we’ve been experiencing for much of the last seven years, with each only ever able to deny agency to the other.

Politically, Northern Ireland has become bound in a consociational straitjacket, that presupposes just two communities. As the report notes…

…when the historic power-sharing arrangements between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party were still at a relatively early stage, the advance of Northern Irishness was regarded as a cultural development that might shore up that experiment in devolved consociational government.  Much of that optimism would, however, prove ill-founded.

Some of those prominent in promoting such an ‘ugly scaffolding’ at the time  (which ultimately had the cumulative effect of promoting the two main populist tribunes) now have all but abandoned the Belfast Agreement and advocate secession.

The figures suggest that such a move still lies beyond any current horizon. A horizon that is obscured by the complexity underlying the middle ground territory which challenges a hegemonic discourse that combines religious/cultural/nationality.

A quarter of a million people living in NI today were born elsewhere, a growing minority of whom were born farther afield than Britain or the Irish Republic. They have brought a new diversity so that up to ninety languages are now spoken in NI’s schools.

The report argues that the ‘narrow ground’ of Northern Irish cultural life has begun to ‘flourish into something rather richer and more diverse”. There’s no reliable way to wrangle these new communitis into the binary system of post GFA politics.

But that’s not the main block to a post Belfast Agreement secessionist break with the UK for Northern Ireland. When asked for their religious affiliation, some 330,983 people – more than one in six of the population – stated that they simply had none.

Now, what comes next is fascinating not just in what it reveals about the attitudes of this group but how it challenges any conventional assumption about the politics of this group…

…those who are resistant to being categorised in religious terms, even after being prompted twice, prove rather less reticent about being defined with regards to nationality. [Such that] those who were raised in Northern Ireland but have no religious affiliation have, as one might expect, a very distinctive cultural profile.

Individuals in this category are rather more likely to identify as British and/or, especially, as Northern Irish than people in the wider population, but are markedly less likely to call themselves Irish. [Emphasis added]

The crux is that whilst it continues to measure the decline of religion accurately and effectively, the Census itself is failing to adequately track the process of secularisation through its own system collection of data.

Worse, in using the GFA’s two communities model to frame the questions it asks, it is actively encouraging a mode of demographic competition, such that Catholic Churches are empty across NI, the number of “Catholics” has hit record levels.

The ultimate corollary of this that the 2021 census has seriously underestimated the true degree of secularisation in Northern Ireland, not amongst those brought up as Protestants but those who grew up going to Mass on a weekly basis and no longer do.

None of this is rocket science. A cursory look at how the number of Protestants has fallen off a cliff between 2001 (53.1%) and 2021 (43.5%) would tell even the mildly curious reader that it cannot have been through changes in births and deaths.

The disparity with the Life and Times Survey is illustrative:

While the Census suggests that 17% of people in the region have no religion, the latest Life and Times Survey (2022), for example, puts the figure rather higher at 28%.

The Census is a bureaucratic function set up to measure and anticipate changing demands in the region it surveys, it’s main point therefore is not to wrangle Northern Ireland into measuring “the two communities” in the Belfast Agreement.

So whilst we can see the secularisation in once orthodox Catholic community in changing demands, not least in education, there’s simply no sign of its broad move towards heterodoxy within the census returns. The report concludes that:

…[the Census] is a discursive project that produces some of the realities it claims merely to record and, in the process, provides a rather distorted impression of contemporary Northern Irish society. The most significant of these distortions is that the Census encourages forms of demographic competition that reproduce the ever more time-worn narrative of the ‘two communities.’

As noted in a previous post in this series, this is the third Census results Slugger has covered in its twenty one years, and the pattern of raised expectation of ‘historic opportunity’ rises and then falls upon delivery. And each time it falls a little lower.

The paper offers a robust analysis that the census has become part of the discursive battleground around a border poll, encouraging secular Catholics to stick with the old terms, while their Protestants counterparts drop them with a will.

Cue breathless announcements of impending change (from some who should know better) rest on the shrinking of traditional unionism and the rising of strongly post unionist voices most evident in the most Protestant areas of Northern Ireland.

The blot is shot on corralling Catholics into the out lobby. It is not a route to united Ireland. It’s surely time to swap trams, drop demands for “a difficult conversation” and begin catalysing a more open space for something more fruitful to take its place?


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