Changing demographics spark debate about Northern Ireland’s future | Political news

For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, new census figures show Catholics outnumber Protestants.

The results have been described as “a pivotal moment” by the leaders of the Irish republican parties – supporters Irish reunification and attracted most of their votes from Catholics, and caused unrest among the unionists who wanted to stay in the UK and were supported mainly by Protestants.

While much of the island of Ireland gained its independence from Great Britain a century ago, Northern Ireland was created in a way that was clearly intended to maintain a permanent majority of pro-British Protestants.

For some, the new numbers are another sign on the road to a united Ireland.

John Finucane, a prominent member of the leading Republican party Sinn Fein, called for preparations for “the possibility of a unity referendum”.

“The partition of Ireland has failed. Together we can build a better future for every person living on this island,” the MP said when announcing the results.

A wall of peace separates Catholics and Protestants.
A wall of peace separating Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast [File: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

Complex image

However, caution should be exercised when interpreting the results and their political applications, Peter McLoughlin, a senior lecturer in political history at Queens University Belfast, told Al Jazeera.

People of Catholic ancestry do not make up the majority of the total population, nor do they necessarily support a united Ireland.

“While we can say that there is a very close link between religion and political leanings, there are exceptions to the rule of both sides,” says McLoughlin.

However, Northern Ireland’s history means that the fact that Catholics are now the larger group is clearly “symbolically and historically important” and will increase unrest among the main parties. unionists, who have seen their positions shift over the years.

In 2017, mass parties lost their majority in local legislatures for the first time.

Earlier this year, Sinn Fein won the largest number of seats in the May election, the first time a Republican has done so.

Another worrying trend for unionists is that the number of people identifying themselves as “British only” has fallen by 8% since the last poll in 2011.

It is noteworthy that both major mass organizations briefed the media to downplay the significance of the results before they were published.

What is clear is that unionists – or really Irish republicans – will need to reach beyond those who identify as Catholic or British, Irish or British, to gain enough support for their cause. .

Leader of the Union Party.
Union Party leader Naomi Long speaks to the media at the Stormont . parliament building [File: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

Middle earth

About a fifth of people identify as “Northern Ireland” and may support parties such as the Alliance, who do not have a unified stance and have made a lot of progress in this May election.

Kellie Armstrong, a Unionist representative in the local legislature, told Al Jazeera that census figures demonstrate that many people like her don’t want to be “dove” to be British or Irish.

“It just shows that we are no longer a two-part place, that we are really a more pluralist and a much more diverse Northern Ireland,” she said.

Any referendum on Irish unity “will be more nuanced and it is people like me, Northern Irishmen, who do not define themselves in religious terms, that will do it. deciding whether to hold a border survey. [referendum]and what the outcome of that frontier poll will be,” Armstrong said.

More and more diverse

The census also shows that a small but growing portion of the population is black or from an ethnic minority or has immigrated to Northern Ireland from the EU and elsewhere.

People of ethnic minority background now make up 3.6% of the population – four times more than in 2001 at the end of the 30-year armed conflict, and more than 100,000 people record their birthplace as outside the North. Ireland.

While most people speak English, today more people speak Polish or Lithuanian than their native languages, Irish or Ulster.

However, a parliamentary inquiry from earlier this year found politics was not keeping up with this shift, saying that “minorities are often overlooked in Northern Ireland”.

The report found that perceived prioritization of issues facing major Catholic and Protestant communities means that this could “squeeze” attention to ethnic minorities. and migration, often referred to as “other”.

Northern Ireland also struggles with disproportionately high levels of hate crime – where perpetrators are rarely brought to court.

Hate crime

The Belfast Multicultural Association (BMCA) was bombed in a hate crime attack in May, a day before they reopened after an earlier firebomb attack in 2021.

“Very often black and minority communities are left out of the conversation,” said Coumilah Manjoo of the BCMA.

“Census data is very important, it shows that the population is now more diverse than ever before, the languages ​​we speak are more diverse as well.”

“Even with census data, people seem to care much more about ‘green and orange’ [Catholic and Protestant] face of things. We have to move beyond that pomp.”

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