Brian Feeney: Census another powerful blow to unionists

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Census figures show that Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time since partition
Census figures show that Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time since partition Census figures show that Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time since partition

The outcome of these census figures which everyone has been waiting for was not unexpected, but the extent of the leap in numbers of the Catholic population since 2011 to overtake the Protestant population decisively was extraordinary.

There has been only one direction of travel for almost three decades, but what these figures demonstrate is that the velocity of travel is accelerating. So therefore are its political and societal consequences, though you can be sure these will be played down by the overwhelmingly pro-union electronic media.

One obvious consequence is that the ageing Protestant population will decline as a percentage of the total even more rapidly and continue to concentrate into living in two and a half counties, something already evident in election results. You could now extrapolate a graph to predict the outcome of a census in 2031 if there is one here. The people who will vote for a united Ireland are already born.

There are other telling figures apart from the religious breakdown. Perhaps most significant are the figures for national identity. Those identifying as ‘British only’ plunged from 40 per cent in 2011 to 31.8 per cent now. ‘Irish only’ is now 29 per cent, up from 25 per cent.

The bien pensant media makes a big play of the figures for ‘Northern Irish only’, but that’s a meaningless category concocted by the NIO about fifteen years ago to try to develop a phoney legitimacy for this polity. It has no legal status and no definition. Many people tick that box because they think if they’re born here they should. The Good Friday Agreement says you can be British or Irish or both, because there’s no legal anything else. Yet you’ll hear desperate attempts to equate ‘Northern Irish only’ with voting intentions despite the obvious fact that many designating themselves ‘Northern Irish only’ vote nationalist or unionist.

You also hear codswallop about the north being, all together now, ‘an increasingly diverse society’. It’s not. Parts of (south) Belfast may be, but the census shows the north is still 97 per cent white and only 7 per cent were not born in Ireland. Contrary to some scare-mongering claims about immigration, only 5 per cent have a first language other than English.

There’s much more of interest in the figures but what is indisputable is that the political consequences are enormous. The outcome is yet another powerful psychological blow to unionists. The 2011 results released in autumn 2012 were the proximate cause of the shock that led to the ‘fleg protests’ 2012-13. Then came the loss of a unionist majority in the 2017 assembly elections, then unionists became a minority in Westminster seats, then Sinn Féin became the largest party in the north with Michelle O’Neill in position to be first minister. Now this: the public and decisive end of unionist hegemony.

Instead of any unionist leader owning up to their followers that this is the way their future will unfold, only faster, they all stupidly deny it makes any difference. Not one responds to overtures from republicans to welcome them by trying to make the north attractive to nationalists. Rather they double down on hostility. And don’t let have any guff about, “we’re all minorities now.” We’re not. Eighty percent still vote for manifestations of the two main blocs.

The fundamental questions unionists have to answer are these. The north was artificially carved out to create a tribal reservation with a permanent majority for Protestants and unionists. Since that is no longer the case and never will be again, what is the point of the place? What’s it for? Who benefits? Or, as they say in the Felons club, cui bono?