There are now more Catholics in Northern Ireland than Protestants. But what does this mean for the future of the United Kingdom?
The writing has been on the wall since Brexit. The United Kingdom, made of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, is now counting its days. A further nail was driven into the coffin today as statistics from the 2021 census were released showing that, for the first time ever, Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland.
To properly explain the significance of these survey results, some historical context. Northern Ireland was created in 1921 by the UK after the Government of Ireland Act 1920 partitioned the country, carving out six counties with majority Protestant populations and retaining them as part of the UK and allowing the rest of the island to become the Irish Free State a year later.
What were once the Protestant British colonists and the Catholics who remained in Northern Ireland then embarked on decades of violent disagreement, with Republicans wanting reunification and Unionists wanting to remain loyal to and a part of the UK. There has long been a corrupted saying that Northern Ireland is a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.” What was really said by Unionist leader James Craig was “[W]e are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.”
Either way, what this means is that the identity and politics—the actual existence—of Northern Ireland are inextricably linked to its religious makeup. Northern Ireland remains a nation of the United Kingdom on account of its loyalty to the UK, which rests upon its constituents being primarily Protestant.
Except they no longer are.
The census data shows that while there is no overall majority, 45.7% of inhabitants are now Catholic or from a Catholic background compared with 43.48% from Protestant or other Christian backgrounds. The previous census in 2011 found that 45% were Catholic and 48% Protestant.
What this data shows is that, if this demographic shift continues, as it seems that it will, then more Catholics means more sympathy for reunification and voting for parties that represent that (e.g., Sinn Fein). Thus a referendum is likely to be called. Such a referendum would not be called with a continued Protestant, and therefore Unionist, the majority (or superior proportion).
Shifting political sands
During the time of “the Troubles,” from the 1970s onwards, the Republicans were represented by the Sinn Fein political party, which had broadcast bans in both the UK and Ireland. But the then-controversial party, with open links to terrorism, became involved in the Northern Ireland peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement that brought about a lasting peace.
From this point on, Sinn Fein has gathered momentum and increased power to the point it has just now become the most powerful political party in Northern Ireland, overtaking its bitter rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This is reflective of that demographic shift and acts as further confirmation that Northern Ireland will, at some point soon, likely reunify with Ireland.
Brexit and Scotland
There are meaningful arguments as to whether Brexit will be a causal factor for or merely a catalyst in this potential deconstruction of the United Kingdom. Either way, Brexiteers have a lot to answer for.
Two years before the EU referendum, there was the “once in a generation” referendum on Scottish independence, with 55.3% of voters opting to stay in the UK. However, this number has most certainly shifted, with polling very volatile and recently showing Yes to independence leading. The latest results have swung back to give No a 51% advantage.
In other words, we are very close to seeing Scottish voters overall favor independence. Much of this is down to Brexit, whereby Scotland, as a nation of 5 million, voted to stay in the EU. Likewise, Northern Ireland, as a nation of 1.9 million, voted to stay in. But the UK overall, with a total population of nearly 70 million, voted to leave. This tension has evoked merry havoc with the electorate in both countries who now have their wishes for independence or union played off against their desires to stay in or get out of the EU.
Northern Ireland Protocol
Brexit promised all sorts of headaches, but these were ignored by Brexiteers who only wanted to sell the utopian dream to their whipped-up supporters. One such headache is summed up by the question, “What the hell do we do about Northern Ireland?”
In extracting itself from the EU, the UK has to create hard borders again: There is no more free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. For Great Britain, the island without Northern Ireland (NI), this is relatively straightforward. It’s an island. But for NI, there is a land border with Ireland that would need to be turned into a hard border.
Baked into the Good Friday Agreement is a requirement to minimize security checks (among other things relevant to the issue) across the land border. In other words, Brexit is fundamentally opposed to an internationally agreed peace deal, a problem analyzed in depth in this European Parliament paper. There really can’t be a hard border with security checks between NI and Ireland. But there has to be because the UK has left the EU.
This is where the Northern Ireland Protocol comes into play, which is a special trading arrangement set up by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. This means, for the time being, there is effectively a border in the middle of the Irish Sea. Instead of checking goods at the Irish border, the protocol set out that any inspections and document checks would be carried out between NI and Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales), which entails they take place at Northern Ireland’s ports.
Importantly, it was also agreed that Northern Ireland would keep following EU many rules, such as on product standards. Essentially, for all intents and purposes, NI is still in the EU, and benefits from it. This further adds to the division between NI and the rest of the Union.
What Brexit has surely done is drive certain pro-EU voters into the hands of independence or reunification advocates. What this then means is that Brexit has driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and the rest of the country.
Brexit has heralded a retreat to Little Englander scenarios that have impacted people’s sense of national identity. More people are likely to see themselves, these days, as English over being British. Flags with the St George’s Cross (England’s flag) are more likely to be flown than Union Flags that represent the whole Union.
This sense of national identity was measured and then reflected in the Northern Ireland census statistics. As The Guardian reported:
In recent elections support for nationalist and unionist parties plateaued at around 40% for each side, leaving 20% of voters in the middle who are non-aligned and reject traditional sectarian labels. Opinion polls consistently show more people favour staying in the UK – citing taxes and the NHS, among other reasons – than uniting with Ireland.
However. the census, the first since Brexit, showed a loosening of British identity. Some 31.86% identified as British only, 29.13% identified as Irish only and 19.78% as Northern Irish only. In 2011 the figures were 40% British only, 25% Irish only and 21% Northern Irish only.
As lines are drawn on maps, it appears that the writing is on the wall. Brexit and changing demographics have driven a wedge between Scotland and the UK, and Northern Ireland and the UK. With this, the Union is heading inexorably for the international scrapyard to be torn apart and reconstituted, turned into something new, but not necessarily something better. This iteration will be arguably less than what it was, and certainly less than what it could be.
It’s hard to take Brexiteers seriously when they said, “Let’s make Britain great again,” and simply took the country and threw it against a wall of intolerance.
The pieces of the nation will one day soon lie shattered on the ground over which we will erect a plaque. “Here lies the Disunited Kingdom: Is she great yet?”