Partition: Religion is not the political factor it was 100 years ago

Following the latest census results, Cormac Moore looks at how the demographics revealed in the 1911 census fuelled unionist determination that Northern Ireland should consist of six counties and not Ulster's nine

Cormac Moore


A century ago, Ulster unionists insisted that Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan were excluded from the new Northern Ireland, believing a six-county state would have a permanent Protestant majority; the 2021 Census shows that Catholics now outnumber Protestants.

THE recent results of the 2021 census for Northern Ireland revealed that people from a Catholic identity outnumber those from a Protestant identity for the first time, 100 years after the entity of Northern Ireland was created specifically to ensure that a permanent Protestant majority would prevail.

From the moment the partition of Ireland appeared on the horizon as a means to break the deadlock between northern unionists and Irish nationalists during the Third Home Rule Crisis, the British administration in Dublin Castle studied the census results of 1911 to consider different options based on counties, rural districts and poor law unions which could have seen the exclusion of roughly five counties of Ulster.

Ulster unionists sought the exclusion of the six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone from a home rule settlement though, believing this would provide the largest area with a secure Protestant majority in perpetuity.

In 1911, Catholics made up 34.4 per cent of the six counties, with Protestants accounting for almost all the rest of the population, giving the latter a two-thirds majority.

When the British government planned for all of Ulster to be included in the new Northern Irish jurisdiction with the proposed Government of Ireland Bill in late 1919, James Craig spearheaded a campaign to insist on just six counties and not the nine counties of Ulster to be included in Northern Ireland as this was the maximum area Ulster unionists felt they could dominate without being 'outbred' by Catholics.

Catholics made up 43.68 per cent of the whole province of Ulster in 1911 which many unionists felt was too close to a majority for Protestants to predominate.

The decision of the Ulster Unionist Council to seek six instead of nine counties was deeply unpopular amongst the 70,000 Protestants of counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan who believed they were sacrificed to the southern administration.

At a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council on March 10 1920, Lord Farnham of Cavan put forward a resolution that the Council would not accept anything other than the "whole geographical province of Ulster".

The resolution was rejected. Monaghan unionists condemned the "selfish policy" of the Council. Worse still, in their eyes the Ulster Covenant of 1912 - which had been signed by thousands of unionists in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan - had been shown to have been nothing more than "a mere scrap of paper", brushed aside by the Council so as "not to endanger their precious six-county safety".

Others believed there would be no threat to the unionist majority with nine counties, believing six counties would present a "ridiculous boundary... Donegal would be cut off from its harbours and rivers and there would be no access to it except through the six counties".

Thomas Moles, Belfast-based MP, explained that the three counties had to be abandoned in order to save the six counties: "In a sinking ship, with life-boats sufficient for only two-thirds of the ship's company, were all to condemn themselves to death because all could not be saved?"

Moles's use of such a stark reference so soon after the sinking of the Titanic was not lost on anyone.

Another meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council on May 27 1920 decided by a margin of 310 to 80 to support a six-county instead of a nine-county Northern Ireland parliament.

Ulster unionists outside of the six counties resigned from the Ulster Unionist Council in large numbers. Many members of the Ulster Women's Unionist Council from Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan also resigned.

The British government only agreed to acceding to the Ulster unionists' wishes to confine the northern parliament to six counties in the spring of 1920, just as the bill was being brought before the House of Commons.

Walter Long committee's original argument that the nine-county proposal "will enormously minimise the partition issue... it minimises the division of Ireland on purely religious lines. The two religions would be not unevenly balanced in the Parliament of Northern Ireland", were exactly the reasons why the Ulster unionist leaders preferred six counties. They had no intention of minimising partition.

To avoid a nine-county parliament, Craig had even suggested the establishment of a Boundary Commission to examine the distribution of population along the borders of the whole of the six counties, and to take a vote in those districts on either side of and immediately adjoining that boundary in which there was a doubt as to whether they would prefer to be included in the northern or the southern parliamentary area.

By 1921, he emphatically opposed the "odious" Boundary Commission provided for in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. By that stage he had his Northern "citadel" which he intended to sit on "like a rock".

By conceding to unionist demands, the British government showed its commitment to Irish unity was not sincere.

While the 2021 census results show there are more people from a Catholic identity than from a Protestant one, today this does necessarily translate into equivalent numbers who identify as nationalists or unionists. Although there were some Protestant nationalists and Catholic unionists in 1921, generally the religion of a person was a strong indicator of that person's political outlook.

This was illustrated by a table produced by Ernest Clark, the main civil servant responsible for establishing the structures of Northern Ireland as a political entity, who showed from the results of the first election to the Northern Ireland parliament in 1921 "that the percentage of votes cast for the Unionists and the other party respectively was almost identical with the percentage of Protestants and Roman Catholics in the various constituencies".

In 1921, only a fraction of people in Northern Ireland were neither Protestants nor Catholics and almost all identified themselves as British, Irish or Ulster people. Being such a new entity that was not supported by nationalists nor even unionists (who preferred to remain fully integrated within the United Kingdom), no-one identified as Northern Irish in 1921. It took decades before people started to identify as such.

According to the 2021 census, just under 20 per cent of Northern Ireland's population now identify as Northern Irish only, with another 11.19 per cent now identifying as British and Northern Irish only, Irish and Northern Irish only or as British, Irish and Northern Irish only.

The make-up of the north's population is very different now to what it was 100 years ago. Many people now were not born in the north, nor in Britain or Ireland, coming from all over the world to live in what is now becoming a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society.

A far greater proportion of the population are from many different religious backgrounds compared to 1921, with 19 per cent also declaring to be from no religion or not stating their religion. Only 0.2 per cent claimed to have no religious affiliation in 1911.

While the 2021 census results revealing that Northern Ireland's built-in Protestant majority no longer exists is a major psychological blow to unionists so soon after their political majority was lost, the results also show a far more complex and blurred identity make-up that now prevail in the north that did not exist when Northern Ireland was established in 1921. Religion is not the political factor it was 100 years ago.

Cormac Moore is author of Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Merrion Press, 2019).