David McCann: Those who can rise to the challenge of change will own the future

David McCann

David McCann

David McCann is an Irish News columnist and commentator on politics and elections.

Pictured is James Craig (centre), the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, with members of his cabinet in 1921.
Pictured is James Craig (centre), the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, with members of his cabinet in 1921. Pictured is James Craig (centre), the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, with members of his cabinet in 1921.

Why do we care so much about a census?

It is only every ten years that we get these revealing snapshots into the shape of our society. Here, we must caveat, whilst a census will tell a great story about many aspects of life in Northern Ireland, it does not give you the entire picture.

This survey will not tell you much about the electoral fortunes of parties in the future and does not give you a meaningful indication of how a border poll would go in the future.

What it does show in spades is the changing nature of our society. Looking back to the turn of the century, the number of Protestants in Northern Ireland made up 53 per cent of the population. Today, they make up just over 43 per cent. The number of Catholics has risen from just over 43 per cent to now just under 46 per cent. More striking, those who do not identify with any religion are becoming a growing factor in our society rising from under 3 per cent in 2001 to more than 9 per cent today.

Another noteworthy trend is the rise of our ethnic minorities who twenty years ago represented just 0.8 per cent of our population and have steadily grown to 3.4 per cent today. If that rate of growth continues, this will become a key voting demographic for parties to cater to in the future. This will be important in how our political debates change and how local parties campaign in some seats in future elections.

This is not just the trends that have been built over twenty years; it is the wave of the future. It is hard to see how any demographic or identity belief gets above 50 per cent in any future census in Northern Ireland. We have become more diverse, less British-orientated, less religious and more fluid in how many of us view our identities. Plus, there are more changes to come in the future if the current movements in attitude hold.

At the moment, those with a British-only identity account for 31.9 per cent of people, just ahead of those with an Irish-only identity on 29.1 per cent. By the time of the next census, there is every possibility that those with an Irish-only identity overtake those with a British-only identity. This will map alongside an increasingly secular and more ethnically diverse population.

Looking ahead it is hard to see how this alters our local political dynamics. What is certain is that the foundations upon which this state was founded are over. What comes next is not set, but the old ways of looking at society and politics are going to become increasingly out of place.

Those who can accommodate and rise to the challenge of change will own the future. The groups that can build alliances and seek to get along with the broadest sections of our society will be those that thrive, not just electorally but also in achieving their constitutional goals. Many in our community want to have a foot in many different camps, with links to the European Union, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Balancing all three is hard, but not impossible to do.

In the meantime, we still have challenges; our population is ageing with a 25 per cent increase in those over the age of 65, which will bring increasing economic and public service pressures. A reformed executive needs to put thought and emphasis on attracting many of our younger people back to these shores to live and encourage others to pursue a life here.

The new Northern Ireland is just starting to take shape.