There are two developments that could transform the deadlocked political situation in Northern Ireland. The first, which has received much commentary in the media, is the slow motion explosion of Brexit. The second, which has commanded very little attention, is the changing demography of the northern state, the effects of which will be even more profound.
The issue is likely to come sharply into focus with the next census, scheduled for 2021, which also happens to be the year that will mark the centenary of the creation of the Northern Ireland state. It would be a considerable irony – cruel for some, pleasing for others – if it turns out that a state that was set up to provide security for the Protestants of Ulster by providing them with a permanent in-built majority should, 100 years on from its creation, end up with a Catholic population larger than the Protestant one. Is that a real possibility?
In trying to predict demographic futures it is best to start on the solid ground of the findings of the last census, conducted in 2011. That showed that in terms of community background (as opposed to religious belief) the population breakdown was as follows: Protestant 48.4 %, Catholic 45.1% and Others/None 6.5%. One interesting feature of the 2011 count was the change in ratios from the 2001 census. Then the Protestant share at 53.1% was 9.3 percentage points above the Catholic share of 43.8%; the period from 2001 to 2011 saw that share cut to one third of its previous size, down to 3.3 percentage points.
The demographic momentum of the Catholic population suggests that the remaining gap will be closed by the next census. There are a number of indicators that point us in this direction. The Department of Education’s annual School Census shows that since the year 2000 Catholics have formed a majority, taking a 50% or 51% in each count with the Protestant share dropping to approximately 37 % over the last few years.
The pattern that follows is unmistakable. The flow of young Catholics into the 16+ age group has not been matched by any comparable increase in the number of Protestants. The Labour Force Religion Survey paints the picture very clearly. The report it issued in January 2018, drawing upon data collected in 2016, shows the following pattern: a Protestant population that is at a standstill, and a Catholic population experiencing rapid growth, increasing by 39% in the period from 1990 to 2016.
That still does not make Catholics the larger group: the estimate in the report is that Protestants make up 44% of the overall population and Catholics 42%. However, if we restrict it to the working age population, that is those between 16 and 64, the ratio is reversed. Among the working age population the religious composition is 40% Protestant, 44% Catholic and 16% ‘other/non-determined’. That means that the Protestant percentage has dropped a full 14 percentage points from its position in 1990 when the corresponding figure was 54%.
If Catholic numbers now show a slight margin over Protestant numbers amongst those of working age, and by a much larger percentage in the lower age groups, why are Catholics not already the larger of the two population groups? The answer is to do with the older age cohorts. In the 60+ age bracket the Protestant/Catholic ratio stands at 57:35. That ratio provides sufficient ballast for the weight of numbers of the Protestant population to remain the larger group for now. The emphasis however has to be on that qualifying phrase, ‘for now’. Each year sees Protestants over-represented in the death statistics (by a 2:1 ratio) and under-represented in the birth statistics.
There is only one way that this can go. We not only know the direction of travel, we know the destination. Northern Ireland is on its way to a situation where Catholics will outnumber Protestants. This will happen in two stages. First, the overall Catholic population will overtake the overall Protestant population. In the second stage, which will follow on inexorably, Catholics will out-number Protestants among the electorate. When will this happen? That is a matter for speculation, but it is at least possible that the first of these two stages will be reached by 2021.
What would happen then? Demographers estimate that because of the narrowing differential in the birth rate the demographic momentum of the Catholic population will slow down, and that in the longer term its upward trajectory will level off. For the next period then we may be left with a Catholic population slightly larger than the Protestant population, but essentially with two population groups roughly the same size, both stuck below 50%, neither able to claim a simple majority.
Is this then the unionist nightmare coming true? Not if past voting patterns provide any guide to future electoral behaviour. The demographic shift in favour of Catholics has not translated into any significant advance in the nationalist vote since the Good Friday Agreement. Between the June 1998 Assembly election and the March 2017 Assembly election 76,153 voters were added to the electorate. And yet over this 19-year period the combined nationalist vote (that is, the SDLP and SF vote taken together) has only risen by 0.1 of a percentage point: from 39.7% in the June 1998 Assembly election to 39.8% in the March 2017 Assembly election. The overall nationalist vote remains stuck at this level and rather than breaking through the 50% barrier it finds it hard to break the 40% ceiling.
It may be that the political future of Northern Ireland rests with another group entirely. While the issue is usually presented as an arm wrestle between unionism and nationalism this completely neglects the growing importance of those who do not identify with either of the two blocs. In the March 2017 Assembly election these ‘Others’ took 16% of the vote. In the knife-edge scenario of the 50% plus one majority required by a border poll these votes will matter. As one demographer put it to me, ‘If there is be a united Ireland it may be because of a Chinese woman in Finaghy’.
Dr Paul Nolan is a Belfast-based social researcher who writes on Northern Ireland affairs.
This article was originally published in the Irish Times.