The latest census for Northern Ireland indicates that the numerical gap between Protestants and Catholics is steadily narrowing. According to this year’s figures Protestants comprise 53 percent of the population in the North with Catholics making up 44 percent. The census tallies with a familiar trend of a growing Catholic community with the number of Protestants in decline.
When the census was taken in 1991 Protestants made up 58 percent of the population. If the trend was to continue at its present rate the religious breakdown in Northern Ireland would reach parity in another ten years. Sinn Féin maintains that based on religious grounds a united Ireland would be democratically attainable by 2016.
However, Steven King, a senior advisor to Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that the numbers don’t add up to a united Ireland because a large proportion of Catholics wish to stay within the United Kingdom.
“The deficiency of the `count the Catholics school of political science’ is that it assumes Catholics are as homogenous in their political preferences as Protestants, contrary to all available evidence,” he wrote. “While Protestant support for the Union is almost universal, polls consistently find low (but statistically significant) Catholic support for the status quo.”
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy urged political parties to avoid using the census to promote a sectarian divide. “This headcount will dominate discussion because Northern Ireland is one of the few places in the world where a fact-gathering census can be thought to have `winners’ and `losers,'” he said. “Once the dust settles I hope the majority will see the census as a useful reminder of what the Belfast Agreement was all about. Because at the heart of the agreement was a recognition that the bitter divisions of Northern Ireland will never be resolved by mere demographics. If history has taught us anything, it is the hard lesson that a majority — whatever its complexion — cannot ignore the will of the minority. Power and responsibility have to be shared.” ♦