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There are 3 kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics.
- Benjamin Disreali




The Great Divide - Numberism


Anthony McIntyre

A fortnight after they first appeared a brace of articles in The Independent (11th February) by David McKittrick remain the subject of debate and speculation, claim and rebuttal. Today's Andersonstown News, for example, ran an article by Gearoid O Caireallain titled 'Countdown to a United Ireland' which could almost be recited to the moronic tuneless football chant, 'one-nil, one-nil'. With a barely concealed glee that resembled sectarian triumphalism the author of this piece informed his readers that:

There is going to be a United Ireland, whether Unionists like it or not … Catholics will soon be in a majority position in the North and they will vote for a United Ireland at the earliest opportunity. And there is no point trying to bluff us off by saying that many Catholics don't actually want a United Ireland. Come the referendum, the two major parties of the Catholic population will both campaign in favour of the change and almost one hundred per cent of the North's Catholics vote for either the SDLP or Sinn Féin. This is going to happen, and Unionists have got to get used to the idea.

In his articles David McKittrick alleged the existence of 'new figures confirming that the Protestant community is steadily losing in the numbers game'. More Protestants are dying than Catholics and at the other end of the spectrum there are fewer Protestant schoolchildren than Catholic. Moreover, the North's three cities - Belfast, Derry and Armagh 'all now have Catholic majorities. So do at least 13 of the 26 local council areas.'

The Independent's Ireland correspondent has certainly startled a number of people. Even more seem to have been taken by surprise although not by the claim - David McKittrick was extrapolating in like manner in the wake of the 1991 census results claiming in the Independent on Sunday (November 1st 1992) that Protestant fears of being outnumbered had been 'sharply' increased by the findings. In the wake of the 1997 local government elections he returned to the theme in both the Independent and the Irish News arguing that 'unionists will find a great deal to worry about in last week's local election results, which show up both falling numbers and falling morale.'

What raised eyebrows on this occasion was that no sources were supplied. Although improbable in the extreme, for all the readers know, a few self-appointed number crunchers drinking in the Falls Park or their scaremonger equivalent in the Woodvale Park could have come up with the statistics. It is hardly as if those who study demographics are part of the British security establishment or some clandestine guerrilla organisation and who, like Martin Ingram of FRU notoriety, need to remain in the shadows fearful that revelations about their calculations will make them someone's legitimate target. Why would dabblers in demography wish to preserve their anonymity unless perhaps they could not stand over their findings?

Nationalist writers like Tom McGurk found much in the McKittrick articles to reinforce their own views while their unionist counterparts such as former advisor to David Trimble, Graham Gudgin, found them lacking in credibility. Elsewhere, much of the response to the articles made it look as if there was a tendency in some journalistic circles to measure everything with one's nose and see no further than it. While grossly unfair such responses help validate a public belief about the existence of a journalistic maxim - 'when the myth becomes truth, print the myth.'

And few could deny that myths abound in our heavily filtered media environment, none more so than those about the peace process. There are times when it seems that its myths are so beguiling that even serious commentators may feel obligated to ascribe an ulterior strategic wisdom to those republican leaders who are merely bowing to the pressure of insurmountable constraints. In return for republican acceptance of the consent principle, reports appear implying strategic republican advance rather than republicans retreating from republicanism and embracing constitutional nationalism as a result of being brought to heel by a wider constellation of stronger forces.

If a history of the peace process were to be written which depended on appeasing republican leadership myths what sort of history would it be? One perhaps in which that process started only when John Hume met Gerry Adams? If you were to be fed that you would be misinformed. If you were to believe it you would be even less knowledgeable than you thought you were.

No journalist is infallible when it comes to relying on sources. This is as true of David McKittrick as it is of others. In October 2000 in the immediate wake of the killing of Real IRA member Joseph O'Connor his sources - very unreliable in this case - told him something which led him to write that 'the immediate suspects were the Real IRA itself or the Continuity IRA'.

Because the media equivalent of a public health warning should perhaps accompany some journalistic produce - 'reading this can seriously damage your intellectual health' - journalists need to ensure that they put as much distance between what they write and the type of perception of them outlined by Andrew Marr:

Journalists make a lot of stuff up. So great is the demand for comment and 'insider' analysis that wild hunches, tripe really, is packaged as fact, trimmed with self-importance and flung into the insatiable mouth of the news beast.

While the journalist in question rides much too high in the integrity stakes for something of that nature to be levelled in his direction it remains incumbent on those writers who make deeply contentious claims on the basis of sources - who have no possible reason for wishing to remain anonymous - to preserve their guarantee of anonymity for others more deserving. In this case those seeking to challenge the findings should be allowed to 'cross-examine' the material witnesses - the sources.

It is impossible to say in what future direction present demographic trends may lead us. The debate on the matter is hardly a new one. As Graham Gudgin claims 'forecasts of the imminent demise of the Protestant domination are a long-established feature of political life on this island, stretching back to the millenarian Pastorini prophesy of the 1820s and beyond that to Lilli Bulero in 1688'. In terms of the existence of the Northern Ireland political entity Martina Purdy pointed out that 'the numbers game began with the foundation of the state in 1921. Northern Ireland's first prime minister Lord Craigavon, at the time of partition, suggested a 42% Catholic population in the new state would be unmanageable.' The unionists, prudently from their strategic point of view, opted for a six county state rather than nine because the latter possessed only a short shelf life. Yet the numerical spectre haunted the Northern unionists throughout their existence as the dominant political community. In the early 1990s Ken Maginnis claimed to have been hearing about nationalists out-numbering unionists ever since he was a child and 'it hasn't happened yet'.

A brief review of the debate from the mid-1990s illustrates not only its ability to attract interest but also how differently statistics are interpreted depending on the political perspective of those analysing them. In September 1996 former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald wrote an article in the Irish Times to refute earlier claims broadcast by Tim Pat Coogan that demographic trends would inevitably lead to a united Ireland. Undeterred, Coogan appeared in the Irish News the following July predicting a threat to the unionist majority. On this he found support from quarters as diverse as Niall O'Dowd and Barry White. In addition Brendan O'Leary and Geoffrey Evans in a joint Irish Times piece argued that the 1997 general election was the last time the unionist bloc was likely to win a majority of the votes cast. O'Dowd in the Irish Times referred to the 'lurking reality of the demographic tide which could well deliver a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland relatively early in the next century' while White in the Sunday Independent claimed that 'soon the demographic time-bomb, turning the 40 per cent nationalist vote into a majority, could explode'.

Again Fitzgerald felt compelled to return to the issue, this time to refute three of above. In the Irish Times (July 26 1997) he argued that 'short of a mass exodus of unionists a Catholic majority cannot emerge in Northern Ireland within the first half of the next century, at any rate'. Fitzgerald based his view on:

the 1991 Northern Ireland Census, which showed that the proportion of Catholic children was lower at each age down from age 9-10 to age 0-1 ... Catholic births in the early 1990s were thus accounting for just under half the total. Since 1983 Catholic fertility seems to have been adjusting belatedly, but very rapidly indeed, towards the lower Protestant level.

In November Dr Philip McGuinness director of the Electoral Research Unit at Dundalk joined the fray with an article in the Newsletter which sought to challenge the assumptions on which those eagerly anticipating a nationalist majority built their case. In what might be perceived as an almost alarmist fashion - which could as easily have hindered as enabled reasoned discussion - McGuinness contended that 'to base apocalyptic demographic forecasts' on some of the then figures being bandied about 'without doing any rigorous analysis is to travel down the pathway frequented by Karadic, Milosevic and Mladic.'

Signs that some unionists felt unsettled by the debate and were coming to accept a certain demographic inevitably came in an open letter in the Irish News in November 1998 from UUP member Alex Kane to the leadership of the IRA in which he claimed 'there will not be a United Ireland for decades, and … when it does come it will be through democracy and demography'.

In the same paper the following June Brian Feeney, supporting the earlier view of O'Leary and Evans that unionism was on the verge of becoming an electoral minority, asserted in the wake of the European elections that 'the real story is this. The total nationalist share of the vote on June 10 was 45.4 per cent, the highest ever. Those unionists who call themselves unionists got 52 per cent.' The editor of the Andersonstown News interpreted this as meaning that 'what we were formerly asked to believe; ie, that unionists were destined to remain a significant majority well into the middle of the next century is so much bunkum.'

In October 1999, Paul Prendergast in the Guardian sought to explain the 'bunkum' by tracing the rise in the nationalist electorate:

In the 70s before Sinn Fein embraced the ballot box, the nationalist vote was only 30%. By the 1993 local elections the SDLP and Sinn-Fein total came to 34%, and it was 37% in the 1996 Forum election. By the 1997 local elections it had reached 38%, and unionists' sense of fighting a losing battle grew as they lost Belfast council for the first time. The nationalist vote rose to 40% in the 1997 Westminster and 1998 assembly elections. The latest European elections showed a 45% nationalist vote - and can't be simply disregarded as Northern Ireland had double the British electoral turnout.

In an April 2001 edition of the Guardian Malachi O'Doherty questioned the extent to which future trends could be extrapolated from such statistics. His position: 'social attitudes surveys in Northern Ireland have shown that up to 30% of Northern Irish Catholics would not currently vote for unity. On what basis is anyone to presume that they will have changed their minds in 10 or 20 years' time?' This was a theme revisited by Graham Gudgin in his Belfast Telegraph challenge to the McKittrick thesis.

The spring of 2001, with elections in the air accompanied by the census collation, was the backdrop to Owen Boycott and Tom McGurk in separate articles in the Sunday Business Post and Guardian sounding the alarm bells for Unionism. Boycott was more persuasive relying on analysis provided by Ian Shuttleworth of Queens University which purported to show an increasing Catholic minority.

To and fro like a tennis ball the controversy has raged and shows no sign of abating. While many of the elements in the debate may be contested such as the numbers of Catholic school children vis a vis Protestants, and who exactly is emigrating and who is coming back in, an irrefutable fact is that the nationalist electorate is increasing. What is not given sufficient attention by nationalist figure huggers - or where it is it is not articulated as clearly as it might be - is that the nationalist electorate is not a monolith on the question of unity.

Whereas it is fairly certain that almost all unionists will vote for the union, nationalist orientation has been more fragmented. Considering the figures of O'Doherty and Gudgin for those nationalist voters who would still vote for the union, they are not saying a great deal different from the Provisional Republican Movement which for years made the point that constitutional nationalism was a different beast in many ways from republican nationalism. Constitutional nationalism was more disposed toward finding an accommodation within the union. This had less to do with the predilections of its leaders than it was a reflection of a strong element within the constitutional nationalist constituency willing to vote a nationalist party not primarily because the party wants a united Ireland but presumably because it is better placed to advance certain sectional or communal interests within the union.

This means that a referendum of the people rather than a sectarian headcount in the Assembly may be more beneficial to unionism should there occur a numerical Catholic or even nationalist majority. In such a situation where the electorate would return a majority of nationalist assembly members at Stormont those representatives will not determine the future of the North. Consequently, from Sinn Fein's point of view even in the best case demographic scenario a referendum is likely to frustrate rather than facilitate unity.

Perhaps this explains why republicans, despite the triumphalist posturing of the occasional columnist-cum-cheerleader, seem not to be jumping up and down, ecstatically predicting the ultimate demise of the union on the basis of a mere numbers game - ostensibly insisting instead on the arduous task of persuading a sufficient number of unionists. The Sinn Fein president is already on record as saying that while out breeding the Protestants might be an enjoyable pastime for those with the energy it can hardly amount to a strategy. In its internet news distribution service Sinn Fein said of the numbers speculation that the figures remain the 'subject of debate, and there are some predictions that Catholic population growth will level off in line with trends elsewhere in Europe.' The same news service informed its audience last December that new figures show that:

The falling birth rate may undermine the recent demographic shift in the North's population, and the prediction of a nationalist majority in the Six Counties in less than 25 years appears more uncertain.

In any event the numbers game shall continue for as long as there are numbers fascinated with counting them. In the midst of all this one thing seems reasonably certain - the days of the North's union with Britain are anything but numbered.



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