Having confidently stated a blog or two back that predictions are a waste of time, let me contradict myself: on one issue this year there will be lots of predictions. I’m talking sectarian head-counting here.
It’s started this morning in The Irish Times . There’s a detailed article by Gerry Moriarty talking about the rising tide of the Catholic population in the north which will have obvious constitutional implications. If not managed “properly and creatively” (whatever that means), he believes it could land us all “back in the mire”. He quotes figures from the NI Department of Education for the last school year: 120,415 Protestants and 163,693 Catholics. At third level, the University of Ulster has just over 11,000 Catholics and just over 7,000 Protestants. The teacher training colleges tell the same story. Overall at third level education, students from a Catholic backround represent 59.3% and Protestant background 40.7%.
So clearly the notion of a permanent Protestant majority in the north is on its way out – it’s merely a question of how soon. For those alarmed by this prospect, it’s important to present this kind of calculation as sectarian head-counting and therefore sectarian, while at the same time finding reasons why Catholic votes= nationalist/Protestant votes= unionist won’t hold with the rising generation. Peter Shirlow of Queen’s University is quoted as saying the younger generation “feel politics is too sectarian or too nationalist”. (No, Virginia, it’s not clear if the ‘sectarian’ refers to unionists or to nationalists.) “They [young people] are in many ways – but not completely – sectarian blind, or tradition blind”.
There’s more stuff – I’ll give you the link at the end – but it’s hard not to conclude that a number of people are going to be trying awfully hard to convince the world, including young people and themselves, that the rising tide of Catholic-background young people will not emerge as a rising tide of nationalist/republican voters. That’s what it boils down to. My own response would be, where’s the electoral evidence that this will happen? Young Catholics, if we judge by election returns, are if anything more republican in their thinking than their predecessors.
And did I mention that the results of the 2011 census will be released in the autumn of this year?
One last point: the Good Friday Agreement says that there can be constitutional change in the position of N Ireland only when a majority so decide. Moriarty’s article and lots of other people believe that for nationalists/republicans to act on a 50+1 basis would be a recipe for disaster, that only when a majority of unionists favour change should there be change. One question: if that's so, why did they put in the Agreement a clause that meant nothing?