What will – and won’t – the 2021 Census tell us about Northern Ireland’s future?

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By Dr Laurence Cooley
Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Department of Political Science and International Studies

As the 2021 census – now less than a week away – has loomed on the horizon, interest in what the exercise will tell us about the religious demography of Northern Ireland has been building. Speculation about the ‘sectarian headcount’ has regularly accompanied these decennial events, but given the increased prominence of debates about a potential border poll in the aftermath of Brexit and a lack of clarity about the criteria that will be used to judge whether a unity referendum should take place, it’s perhaps inevitable that this year’s census should attract particular attention.

Having spent the past four years researching the politics of the census in Northern Ireland (amongst other places), I’ve grown used to reading statements such as the following, from the Irish Independent in January: “The Northern Ireland Census, due in March 2021, is expected to show a nationalist majority for [the] first time in the North’s 100-year existence which is also being commemorated this year.” 

Ironically, this was the opening to an article prompted by my research, which questions commonplace assumptions about the census. Beyond suggesting that I might need to work on communicating my findings more clearly to non-academic audiences, such a statement also nicely illustrates potential confusion about what this year’s census will show.

Counting nationalists?

The first point of confusion relates to the use of the term ‘nationalist’ (and ‘unionist’, for that matter) in coverage of census results. A census can only tell us about things that are asked on the form, and no census in Northern Ireland has ever asked people whether they consider themselves nationalists, unionists or neither. 

What the census has long asked about is religion. Since 2001, those not answering this optional question have been asked instead about the religion they were brought up in. This year’s census is the second to ask a further potentially relevant question, about national identity – offering ‘British’, ‘Irish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ amongst the available tick-boxes, but not restricting respondents to one answer.

The elision of ‘nationalist’ and ‘Catholic’ is of course common in everyday political debate in Northern Ireland, and generally we understand what the speaker or writer means, regardless of the precise terminology they use. As Paul Nolan has written, though, the point that not all Catholics are nationalists “is generally accepted but frequently forgotten when forecasts are made,” and this matters when it comes to discussion of the census and a potential border poll.

The 2019 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey showed that 59% of Catholics think of themselves as nationalists, with 39% thinking of themselves as neither nationalists nor unionists. Just 56% of Catholic respondents stated that they would vote for Irish unification if a border poll were held tomorrow.

These figures might shift significantly – and perhaps decisively – during a border poll campaign, and recent opinion polls have indicated higher support for reunification, but they demonstrate the importance of distinguishing between the identities recorded in the census and political attitudes that might be correlated with them, but which the census doesn’t record.

This picture is further complicated by the census’s national identity question. When the 2011 results from this question were released, many commentators picked up on the more complex picture they painted compared to the more binary religion statistics. Liam Clarke, for instance, wrote that the statistics “challenge conventional wisdom that national identity and religion are directly linked.” It will be worth watching these results again when they are released next year, given all the political upheavals of the past decade.

Beyond majority politics

The second area of confusion is apparent in the way that the extent of demographic change is presented. While it is widely expected that the 2021 census will reveal that the proportion of the population coming from a Catholic background is now larger than those from a Protestant background, this doesn’t mean that there will necessarily be a Catholic majority – if that term is used to mean more than 50% of the population.

As John Coakley has written, based on projections “Catholics (by background) will reach at least parity with Protestants by 2021, with each at 46 per cent.” Paul Nolan agrees, arguing that there’s a difference between the Catholic community becoming the larger of the two communities and it becoming an absolute majority (and, we might add, of a majority of the population who are eligible to vote). 

Brendan O’Leary, meanwhile, writes that “Northern Ireland no longer has an ethnic, religious, or political majority. It has two and a fraction major blocs that are each minorities: unionists, nationalists, and others, which partly reflects transformations of its demography of Protestants, Catholics, and Others.”

Demographic projections are not a precise science and it could be that the census delivers surprises – not least because it’s being conducted during a pandemic, when significant numbers of people might have returned home during lockdowns. What seems clear, though, is that while Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority has long since disappeared, it remains unlikely that the 2021 census will reveal an absolute Catholic majority in its place.

None of this is to deny that demographic change is happening in Northern Ireland or that it has important political implications. However, as the expert Working Group established to consider the design and conduct of a potential border poll noted in its recent interim report, demographic change alone is unlikely to determine the likely outcome of such a poll. 

When my research questioning an automatic link between the census and a border poll was picked up by the press, I received some feedback from republicans who suggested I was trying to deny the inevitability of Irish reunification. I would have a different take, and stress that retreating into reliance on demography serves no-one well. Indeed, for nationalists there is a particular danger in relying on the emergence of a Catholic majority, given that in the medium-term at least, neither community is likely to enjoy that status. 

Demography is not necessarily destiny – as the Democrats almost found to their cost in last year’s US elections. Gerry Adams recognised this twenty years ago when he joked that “outbreeding unionists may be an enjoyable pastime for those who have the energy, but it hardly amounts to a political strategy.” 

One lesson of the 2021 census results may well be that nationalists and unionists alike need to develop strategies that appeal beyond traditional sectarian lines and to Northern Ireland’s growing population of ‘neithers’, who as Katy Hayward notes, will likely play a significant role in determining the constitutional future.

Originally published on Northern Slant.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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