Friday 21 December 2007

The 2006 Annual Report of the Registrar General

As every year, the latest annual report of the Registrar General, published in December 2007, contains a wealth of information about the structure of Northern Ireland's population.

Most of the information is fairly neutral, or is difficult to disaggregate by religion (or 'community', to use the currently fashionable term). For instance, data that would be fascinating to know in relation to the natural increase or decrease of the two main politico-religious groups is not available here. We can see, therefore, how many births and deaths there were in 2006, but not how many births to Catholic or Protestant mothers, or how many deaths of Protestants or Catholics.

Nonetheless, in two areas the report gives an interesting insight into the evolution of the religious balance.

Firstly, in Appendix 2 the statistics on birth rates are broken down by local government area, which allows a very rough proxy to be made for birth rates by religious group. The correlation between the proportion of Catholics in the child-bearing cohort of the population (2001 Census Table S306: Age By Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In); ages 20-39 only), and the birth rate (expressed in births per 1000 of the population) is quite clear:

[table removed temporarily]

The coefficient of correlation between the two columns of figures is 0.60, which shows a fairly good strength of relationship. If curious little Moyle is removed from the calculation, the correlation coefficient shoots up to 0.72.

What this means is simple – Catholics are still having more children than Protestants. The Schools Census shows that there are more Catholic kids in Northern Ireland's schools than Protestant (and other) kids, and the evidence of the birth rates shows that this will continue, and probably accelerate. If there is no imbalance in migration patterns this points clearly to a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland within the next generation or so.

The second interesting thing to emerge from the 2006 Annual Report of the Registrar General is the religious breakdown of the marriages that took place in 2006. In Section 1.9 – Marriages – the report notes that "Of the 5,813 religious marriages in 2006, 52 per cent were Roman Catholic ceremonies, 20 per cent Presbyterian, 16 per cent Church of Ireland, four per cent Methodist and eight per cent other denominations." The slight predominance of Catholic over non-Catholic marriages reflects a trend that has been fairly constant for some years. The graphic in the Annual Report shows this clearly:

[graph removed temporarily]

The proportion of Catholic marriages has remained fairly stable, while the 'Protestant and other' proportion has been falling. This mirrors the increasing Catholic proportion of the 'marriage age' cohort, but the increasing number of civil marriages means that no concrete conclusions can be drawn. However, anecdotal evidence points towards the possibility that civil ceremonies are more common amongst the previously-married, who tend to be older and less likely to have more children, whereas the 'first marriages', from which the children are usually born, take place more often than not in a church. If this is true, the effect of higher Catholic birth rates will be increased by the fact that more of the marrying couples are Catholic.

Overall, therefore, the evidence points towards an increasing Catholic proportion in the young-adult population, which in turn is producing proportionately more children. The outcome will be the continuation of the increase in the overall proportion of the population of Northern Ireland that is Catholic, leading almost inevitably to a Catholic majority.

Thursday 20 December 2007

It didn't take long

Two days ago this blog referred to Orange Order Grand Master Robert Saulters statement that "there is a very widely held belief within the Protestant community that if almost 30 GAA halls or sports facilities had been burnt this year then both the Government and the police response would have been entirely different. I share that view".

This kind of comment, which falsely equates the GAA with the Orange Order, is too often taken to be an encouragement to loyalist vandals to 'retaliate' against GAA premises whenever an Orange Hall is attacked. This blog pointed out that it was worth "watching very closely in the coming weeks to see if Mr Saulters words have the effect of 'inspiring' loyalist bigots to carry out reciprocal attacks on GAA premises. And if they do, will the unionist politicians be outraged? Or will they, as so often, let their silence speak for them?"

Well, we didn't have to wait very long.

UTV reported an attack on a GAA club in Fermanagh today, in which a store room window was smashed and flammable liquid poured inside the club. The club, at Drumgoon near Maguiresbridge, also had sectarian graffiti daubed on its walls.

If any unionist politician would like to show that they apply the same standards to all sections of the community, then this might be an appropriate time to speak up, and to condemn this attack as vociferously as they condemn attacks on Orange Halls. But, not surprisingly, there has not yet been one word of condemnation from the unionist media or unionist politicians. The conclusion this blog, and most people, will draw from this is that their anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, and anti-GAA bigotry is still alive and undiminished.

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Double standards again?

Unionists are protesting about the ongoing campaign of attacks on Orange Halls. An Orange delegation – including DUP figures Jeffrey Donaldson, David Simpson and Culture Minister Edwin Poots ­went to the gates of Hillsborough Castle to hand-deliver a letter of protest. Grand Master Robert Saulters has also written a letter of protest, and has been given column inches in the unionist newspapers to air his grievances.

At the same time, DUP First Minister Ian Paisley said he was deeply concerned about attacks on Orange halls which have the hallmarks of a blatant sectarian hate campaign against the Protestant community.

To listen to the fuss in the unionist press one might think that people were being killed, or that the security of Orange Halls was the most pressing issue of the day.

However, almost simultaneously, a series of attacks on a school (and here) have gone entirely unprotested by the unionist politicians. The attacks, for which loyalists are being openly blamed, are apparently a response to a visit to the school by Caitriona Ruane, Minister for Education. It seems that the mere presence of the legally appointed Minister, a colleague of Messrs Paisley and Poots, is sufficient cause for some people to try to destroy a school and deny its pupils an education – even though the school is in a unionist area! And yet the unionist politicians are silent! What are their priorities? Are halls used by one section of the population a greater priority than the education of their own children? Are vandals only a pressing issue if the victims are Orangemen, rather than children? Why are the unionist politicians not more incensed by the attacks on Milburn Primary School?


In his tirade, Orange Order Grand Master Robert Saulters said that "there is a very widely held belief within the Protestant community that if almost 30 GAA halls or sports facilities had been burnt this year then both the Government and the police response would have been entirely different. I share that view".

This kind of false equivalence between the openly sectarian Orange Order and the anti-sectarian, but clearly nationalist, GAA has been used by unionists and loyalists in the past to justify, or excuse, attacks on the GAA. It is worth watching very closely in the coming weeks to see if Mr Saulters words have the effect of 'inspiring' loyalist bigots to carry out reciprocal attacks on GAA premises. And if they do, will the unionist politicians be outraged? Or will they, as so often, let their silence speak for them?

Thursday 13 December 2007

Moyle District Council by-election – the Glens, 12 December 2007 – first results

First indications are that Sinn Féin won the by-election in The Glens (part of Moyle District), that was caused by the resignation of Marie McKeegan. Sinn Féin's own website says that Paudie McShane took 50% of the vote, a slight increase on their previous share.

Full details will be posted here once they are known.

Update (14 January 2008):

After a rather lengthy delay, the Electoral Office have finally posted the results of the Glens by-election. They were as follows:

McShane (Sinn Féin) - 881 (49,3%)
McCambridge (SDLP) - 569 (31,9%)
McCarry (Independent nationalist) - 336 (18,8%)

McCarry was then eliminated, and his votes transferred as follows:

McShane (Sinn Féin) - 113 (33,6%)
McCambridge (SDLP) - 154 (45,8%)
Non-transferrable - 69 (20,5%)

Leaving Paudie McShane the winner, with 994 votes, against McCambridge's 723.

This outcome shows three principal points. Firstly, the SDLP vote held steady- their 31,9% was almost exactly their share of the nationalist vote in 2005. Secondly, McCarry did not do particularly well - his share of the vote was only 2% higher than the share of the nationalist vote gained by Randal McDonnell in 2005. So no great evidence of an anti-Sinn Féin backlash. Lastly, Sinn Féin did all right, losing just 2% of the nationalist vote to McCarry - votes which should come back to it in the future, judging by the pattern of McCarry's transfers.

Thursday 29 November 2007

PfG – the dog that didn't bark

In October this blog was pessimistic about the prospects of an agreed Programme for Government (PfG). In a naïve way, we believed that the PfG would be a genuine manifesto for the government of Northern Ireland, covering all of the issues that touch on people's lives and that the Executive would have a say on. Since so many of these issues are contentious, we foresaw enormous difficulties in getting them agreed between the two communities.

We were wrong. The PfG as subsequent published (for consultation) is not a blueprint for government at all – it is a vague shopping list of innocuous promises that no right-thinking person could oppose. It is a manifesto for an election, not for a government.

The PfG is chock-full of impressive promises with aspirational dates. This thing will be done by 2011, another thing will be done by 2016, something else by 2018, … Some of the promises are touchingly silly, like that of 'consolidating and steamlining 70% of government department and agency websites by 2009'; others are just impossible to measure, since the PfG does not provide either the base line figures, or a definition of what its goal actually means. For example, it promises to 'grow the creative industries sector by up to 15% by 2011' – what is the creative industries sector? What will be grown – the turn-over, profit, employment, exports, …? And what does 'up to 15%' mean? It could mean 1%, or 3% or 6%. How does the PfG intend to grow this ill-defined sector by this ill-defined amount? Well, we don't know, because it is just an empty promise.

The whole document is full of this type of vagueness. No wonder the Executive agreed it – firstly because most of the goal dates fall long after the next election (and many fall even after the following election in 2015!), and secondly because the aspirations are so vague and generic that there is nothing to disagree with.

But the biggest flaw in the PfG is what is not in it. It entirely avoids all of the key contentious issues in Northern Ireland! There is the barest of a whisper about the housing lists, and certainly nothing that indicates how the scandalous (and politically inspired) housing situation in north Belfast is going to be resolved. On a related issue, the physical sectarian divisions, particularly in Belfast, are ignored. There is no plan to break down the barriers of sectarian intolerance and bigotry, either mental or physical. There is no mention whatsoever of culture or language issues, or of how the Executive aims to promote the use of Irish and Ulster-Scots, as the Good Friday Agreement requires. Sectarian marches, cross-border issues, … the list of omissions is long and slightly puzzling, until you look at this document in the contest of the Ministerial Code that all the parties signed up to.

The Ministerial Code is the document that sets out the rules for what must, and what need not, be submitted for discussion and agreement to the Executive as a whole. The key section here is 2.4, which states that:

Any matter which:
(i) cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers;
(ii) requires agreement on prioritisation;
(iii) requires the adoption of a common position;
(iv) has implications for the Programme for Government;
(v) is significant or controversial and is clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Agreement; or
(vi) is significant or controversial and which has been determined by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly to be a matter that should be considered by the Executive Committee

shall be brought to the attention of the Executive Committee by the responsible Minister to be considered by the Committee.

And there is the answer … in sub-paragraph (v), that innocuous little phrase 'clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme' gives it away. Anything that is in the PfG may need to be referred back to the Executive, where it could be vetoed by one or other side, but anything not in the PfG cannot be 'outside its scope', and therefore, unless it clearly 'cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers', it is left entirely at the discretion of the Minister responsible.

So, to cut a long story short, when the DUP, in its 2007 manifesto, boasted about having clipped Sinn Féin's wings by ensuring that it would have a veto over Sinn Féin ministers' decisions, it may have been a little economical with the truth. The Ministerial Code may certainly give the impression that the Executive is the key decision-making organ, but only for issues in the PfG. Since the PfG is so anodyne, there is little if any wing-clipping. The PfG represents the DUP's ineffectiveness.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Another Flat Earth Society

The Belfast Telegraph reports that MEP Jim Allister, formerly of the DUP, intends to set up a new 'movement' some time soon, to cater for unionists opposed to Sinn Féin in government.

He claims to have established branches of his 'movement' "right across the province", but so far he has held only 'invitation-only' gatherings. One wonders how he knew who to invite.

The new group is a 'movement' rather than a party, as, according to Allister, "there is no imminent election so there is no urgency to having a party". This blog has commented on the election famine during the next 18 months or so, but such a period of inactivity applies only to spectators, not participants. If Allister, or his 'movement', want to stand in any of the elections due in 2009 – local elections, European elections, possibly also Westminster elections – then he needs to start preparing right away. To set up functioning branches, with active members, to attract funding, to prepare policies, manifestos, to select candidates and to publicise them; all this takes time, and 18 months is certainly not a luxury.

The rationale for Mr Allister's 'movement' is a negative one – to try to eject Sinn Féin from the Northern Irish Executive. In order to do this, he would have to achieve the impossible. There are two ways; firstly by winning enough seats at the next Assembly election (due in 2011) to collapse the whole show, and secondly by winning some Westminster seats, and being lucky enough to hold the balance of power in the Westminster parliament after the next Westminster election. In this latter case he could insist on the whole Northern Irish arrangement being re-written as his price to support whichever party wants power most.

It is not necessary to be a genius to see how far-fetched all this is. Neither of the main British parties would agree to such a price. By 2009 Sinn Féin will have been in the Executive and supporting the PSNI for two solid years; the IRA ceasefires and decommissioning will be so far back in time that they are history, and no-one will understand, or share, Mr Allister's backwoods perspective. If there is a Democratic President in the White House, Allister can work out himself which relationship London values most: Washington or him!

As for the 2011 Assembly elections – they are even further away, and the strength of Mr Allister's hatred of Sinn Féin will have to compete with a full term of successful power-sharing. Who by then will wish to collapse the first successful local administration in Northern Ireland's history? And why would they wish to collapse it?

So what can he achieve?

First and foremost, he can split the unionist vote. There may be some constituencies where a split unionist vote will give seats to nationalist candidates, or allow a precarious nationalist to keep his (or her's, in Fermanagh-South Tyrone!). At local level the effect would be strongest, and his impact would decrease the higher up the political food-chain one climbs. Despite his current position as an MEP, it is precisely the European election that he has least chance of disrupting. He will lose his seat, which will go to a 'safe' DUP candidate. Whether Nicholson loses his Euroseat is a question of demographics and turn-out on the day – Allister's 'movement' will not take many of Nicholson's votes.

This blog, of course, being strongly anti-unionist, wishes Mr Allster the best of luck. The more unionist votes he attracts, the easier it will be for nationalist candidates at all levels. In terms of seats, a single unionist party is likely to get more than two separate parties. Three separate and competing parties will split the vote so much that some 'safe' unionist seats will fall into nationalist hands. And, of course, since Allister is an extremist motivated primarily by antipathy to Sinn Féin (and, one suspects, to all nationalists) his 'movement', even if moderately successful, will tarnish the reputation of unionism in Ireland and beyond.

Allister's 'movement' has not yet announced its name. Whether or not he adds to the alphabet soup of past and present xUP names, or goes for a 'modern' name, is impossible to say at this stage. But whatever name he gives it, his movement is doomed to be just another Flat Earth Society.

Friday 16 November 2007

Moyle District Council by-election – the Glens, 12 December 2007

On 12 December an election will take place in one of the smallest and most remote places in Ireland, the Glens electoral area of Moyle, in the extreme north-east of the island. The election will involve an electorate of around 4,000 people, and will change precisely nothing. Yet even such a marginal electoral event can be interesting, and the Glens by-election is no different.

Firstly, though, why will it change nothing? Well, the outgoing councillor was a nationalist (Sinn Féin's Marie McKeegan), and she will be replaced by a nationalist (that much is certain, as all of the candidates are nationalists). So the balance of power on Moyle District Council will not change – it currently has a nationalist majority, with 9 nationalists against 6 unionists.

The reason for the by-election is that, as the Irish News of 23/10/2007 put it:

Sinn Fein councillor Marie McKeegan formally resigned her seat in Moyle Council last night. Ms McKeegan, from Cushendun, announced she was stepping down at yesterday’s council meeting although she will stay as a member of the party.

The rumour mill, of course, linked McKeegan with other Sinn Féin members who have resigned in protest at the party's endorsement of the PSNI. But since McKeegan herself has kept quiet since her resignation, we have no way of knowing if this is a factor in her case.

The Glens district electoral area (DEA) is one of the most nationalist in the whole of Northern Ireland. While unionist candidates do stand here in most elections, they have never won a seat in living memory, and have not put forward a candidate for this by-election. There are around 200 unionist votes in the DEA, and with no hope of a transfer, they have no chance of ever getting elected here. Ironically, the other side of Moyle, the Giant's Causeway DEA is effectively 100% unionist, and here the nationalist parties do not put up candidates. It seems that little Moyle is the most geographically divided district in the north.

Three candidates are standing; one from the SDLP, one from Sinn Féin, and an independent candidate. The independent candidate, James McCarry, used to be a Sinn Féin councillor, but left the party and then lost his seat. He stood in the 2001 Council election as an independent, but was not elected. He did not stand in 2005, so what has tempted him back into the fray now? He certainly has some gripes with Sinn Féin, but has not been openly linked to the 'republican dissident' scene. Nonetheless, standing against a Sinn Féin candidate in a by-election is sufficient evidence of dissidence for most people! So does he perhaps hope to benefit from a perceived growth in republican discontent due to Sinn Féin's endorsement of the PSNI? Even if he does, is there enough discontent to get him elected? The number of votes he gets will be very interesting to see.

The seat should go to Sinn Féin. In 2005 they won almost half of the votes in the Glens – 47%, to the SDLP's 30%. Independent nationalist Randal McDonnell got nearly 16%, and the remainder, less than 8% went to the sole unionist candidate. The unionists will probably not turn out on the day, and Randal McDonnell's voters are a bit of a mystery. If they vote for the SDLP candidate (a son or husband of the SDLP's existing Glen's councillor!), then he might win, especially if McCarry splits the Sinn Féin vote. In 2005 McDonnell was elected on the first count, and thus the results do no show which candidates might have transferred to him, or to whom his votes might have transferred. However, the SDLP have been in decline in this DEA for some time, and standing a family member of their existing councillor smacks a little bit of desperation, or lack of membership.

In all likelihood the turn-out will be very low. The seat was Sinn Féin's, and they are the largest party in the DEA, so the other voters might feel that their votes would not change much. The 200 unionists will stay at home. Only if McCarry appears to be making waves will the Sinn Féin voters come out in force to try to stop him, but so far he has produced only ripples.

A poor showing for McCarry will strengthen Sinn Féin's hand, and discourage other anti-Sinn Féin republicans. A better than expected vote for Sinn Féin would represent an endorsement from a strongly republican area – the first such endorsement since the restoration of the Executive in May 2007. A poor showing for the SDLP would simply confirm to many people that it is a party in terminal decline. So even in this obscure corner of the country there are bigger issues at stake.

Monday 12 November 2007

The UDA 'stand down' - a big fuss about nothing

On 11 November the UDA announced that it was going to 'stand down' its alter-ego, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). The irony of this was not lost on everyone – as Maurice Hayes pointed out, during the long years of its terrorist murder campaign the UDA always denied that the UFF was actually part of the same organisation. Yet now, strangely, the UDA can 'stand it down'!

However, 'standing down' the UFF means precisely nothing. The guns that killed so many people will be kept – they are, according to gang leader Jackie McDonald, the "people's guns". Here's a suggestion, Jackie – let the legal representatives of 'the people' decide what should happen to them. Give the guns to any chosen representative of 'the people', a DUP MLA if you prefer, and let him or her do what is right. By claiming something as patently wrong and illegal as his 'people's guns' rubbish, McDonald is showing that he neither respects nor observes the rules of democracy. In other words, the UDA remains what it was before this false announcement – an armed illegal undemocratic murder gang.

What has changed? The UDA declared a ceasefire in 1994 – one it did not honour, of course. It expressed 'remorse' for having killed so many innocent people, and then went on to kill more. It claimed to be a 'defence' organisation, but was really just a gang of drug-pushing criminals and murderers. Now it claims to have 'stood down' its sectarian murder identity, but refuses to disarm! It now says that people should obey the law and inform the PSNI about drug dealers, yet as everyone knows, it is the UDA itself who deals the drugs. And if the UDA respect the law, then they cannot cherry pick which laws they will obey – they must inform the PSNI about the guns as well as the drugs.

This announcement is a pathetic non-event. The UDA remain unchanged, and should be hunted down and imprisoned by the forces of the state, with the explicit backing of all political parties, including the unionists.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Is the DUP capable of governing?

Before the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive in May this year there were many people who questioned the DUP's willingness to share power. Few questioned their ability – there was a generally held view that the DUP was highly disciplined and motivated and could therefore do the job if they decided to do so. The relief that greeted the DUP's entry into government was partly based upon this belief in their ability.

It is becoming increasing apparent that this generally held view may well have been wrong.

Since the end of the Executive's 'honeymoon' period, during which they basically did nothing, and thus conversely gave the impression of success, the real ability of the DUP to cooperate, to share power, and to govern in the interests of the whole of Northern Ireland has been tested, and is increasing found wanting. Their flaws are becoming more visible, and are combining to give the impression of a party that does not know how to share power, and may not even be able to keep its own supporters happy.

For most of its history the DUP was the opposition to the dominant unionist party. It was the party of protest, of outrage, of the grassroots unionists who felt that neither the middle class UUP nor the blow-in direct rule ministers understood or shared their concerns. Its supporters were more strident, more orange, and even more bigoted, than those of the UUP. Recently, though, it began to attract support from people who might previously have voted for the UUP, and benefited from some high-profile desertions from the UUP. As a result, for the first time it became the dominant unionist party, and began to enjoy the trappings of power that that position brought.

The DUP's entry into the Executive seemed to be the cherry on the bun for northern Irish democracy – with no significant party to their right, the DUP represented the final acceptance of the overwhelming majority of unionists for power-sharing.

But the old questions about their willingness to do it are starting to creep back, and are being joined by subversive whispering about their ability to do it.

  • The recent debacle about the funding for the UDA-CTI scheme, and particularly Peter Robinson's disgraceful part in the tale, shows that the DUP is sticking to its 'us versus them' mentality, rather than pursuing the best interests of all of the people. Robinson seemed keener to shaft his colleague (Margaret Ritchie) than to choke the UDA.
  • Edwin Poots' dismissal of legislation on the Irish language shows that the old bigotry is still alive and well – on grounds of 'cost', of course, but he fooled no-one.
  • Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster have managed to give a convincing impression of sleaze with regard to the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre issue. Who was it that said 'power corrupts'?
  • And now Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley Junior are trying to milk the death of Paul Quinn at the hands of south Armagh criminals to threaten the whole project. (and here and here)

It is clear that the DUP still sees its role in the Executive as that of a blocker – blocking anything and everything that nationalists want. The party is essentially reactionary, and has no vision of what it wants or where it wants Northern Ireland to go. It merely wants to stop the nationalists from making any progress towards their goals, a role it played so strenuously over the long years of its minority years.

The problem is that it is no longer the minority unionist party, and the rules of the game have changed. Politics in Northern Ireland is no longer about jeering at the Catholics from behind the protective wall of British military and financial support. That protective support is being slowly but surely dismantled. The stunted development of unionist politics is become clearer by the day, and having assumed the mantle of majority unionist party, it is now the DUP's stunted development that the world is watching.

By taking an unpopular tribal position on the UDA funding issue the DUP displayed its political immaturity. By taking a position on the Irish language based solely upon its own tribal prejudice, the DUP showed its narrow and mean-spirited approach to reconciliation. By reverting to the tired rhetoric of the pre-restoration days, the DUP is giving the impression that it still views the whole Executive as a temporary and disposable project.

Unfortunately for the DUP, its political immaturity, born from a generation of protest politics, may be its downfall. It has already lost supporters on its right wing, who disagreed with it entering the Executive. As yet, these deserters have no organisation, and their numbers are hard to estimate. On the more centrist wing of the DUP, some ex-UUP members and supporters must be becoming uneasy over the DUP's treatment of Margaret Ritchie, and the impression of sleaze created by the Giant's Causeway affair. Yet, faced with the possibility of losing support on the ground, the DUP has chosen to set out to alienate as many other parties as possible: the SDLP directly via the UDA affair, Sinn Féin via the Irish language and Paul Quinn affairs. The UUP and the Alliance Party have even found themselves obliged to step into unfamiliar territory by the DUP's extremism; the UUP by supporting Ritchie, and the Alliance Party by supporting the rights of Irish speakers.

Does the DUP really think that a power-sharing Executive can function in such circumstances? They appear to be contemplating a post-power-sharing scenario, though without any apparent idea of what that might look like. Have they any idea of what might await them if they succeed in destroying the Executive? Britain does not want to step back in, and certainly has no intention of continuing to underwrite the enormous cost of the dysfunctional northern Irish economy. Those days are gone, and there are new rules for the game now.

The fear of a more nationalist-friendly Plan B got the DUP to enter the Executive in May, but what makes them think that the two governments do not still have a Plan B in the event of the Executive collapsing?

Friday 19 October 2007

Is the Titanic a community thing?

What is it about the Titanic? For some people it seems to have assumed sacred stratus, while for others it just gets a shrug of the shoulders. Is it another one of those subtle signs that give away your 'community background', like the space between your eyes?

The whole Titanic 'industry' seems to be unionist – from the politicians pushing it, to the gushing enthusiasm for Belfast's glory days of heavy metal bashing, to the whole macho symbolism of it, to the very location of the shipyard in loyalist east Belfast.

Maybe the Titanic is a symbol of the days gone by when Belfast produced big ships for the maritime empire, and felt itself to be as British as Glasgow or Newcastle. By constantly harping on about the Titanic, the Titanic Quarter (sic), and the whole ship-building industry, maybe unionists are trying to relive, or even revive, that warm glow of Empire.

But others are less impressed. Those whose ancestors were denied jobs in the shipyard, those who were hounded out of the shipyard for being Catholic, those whose family or friends were killed by guns home-made in engineering workshops in or around the shipyards, those who just feel that the Titanic was only a ship, and a disastrously bad one too, and those who just think that money would be better spent on the present-day needs of the people rather than a shrine to past failures.

The Titanic 'industry' tried to get the public to fund an enormously expensive white elephant to 'showcase the city's maritime and industrial heritage', by creating some kind of replica in lights of the failed ship. The funding authorities (the Big Lottery Fund) decided otherwise, and turned down the proposal.

The comment of one contributor to the website spoke for many:

"Thank goodness the lottery fund saw through this east Belfast White Elephant. Wouldn’t the money be better spent on schools and hospitals instead of all this nonsense of living in the past of a sunk boat?"

Margaret Ritchie's other battleground

Amidst all of the hullabaloo about Margaret Ritchie's courageous one-woman stand against the UDA, and the subsequent bullying she has suffered from the DUP, the media (apart from Brian Feeney in the Irish News) seems to have entirely overlooked her other battleground: the Westminster seat in South Down.

Margaret Ritchie is believed to be the SDLP's chosen successor to Eddie McGrady, who must surely retire at the next Westminster election, when he will be either 74 or 75 (he was born in June 1935). McGrady's seat, in South Down, is a prize that Sinn Féin have their eyes on, and they had even hoped that Caitriona Ruane might take it in 2005 – though McGrady held it comfortably. The seat has the third highest percentage of nationalist votes in the north – over 70% in 2005, second only to West Belfast and Foyle. McGrady won 44.7% to Ruane's 25.8%. Yet, much of McGrady's vote may be personal (perhaps one reason why he, rather that Ritchie, stood in 2005, when the SDLP was feeling the pressure of Sinn Féin's election juggernaut). In the Assembly election this year in South Down, the SDLP vote was 31.4%, only marginally above Sinn Féin's 30.7%. Ritchie's personal vote, at 5,838 was lower than Ruane's 6,334.

So how will the shenanigans up in Stormont effect the vote in South Down when Gordon Brown eventually takes the plunge and calls a Westminster election?

Ritchie herself, in the UDA-CTI funding controversy, has easily won the battle for public opinion. Only the UDA's supporters (including, needless to say, those who vote DUP) actually oppose what she has done. All right-minded people applaud her decision. So if an election was held today, she would probably win the seat with the solid support of the SDLP voters, some undecided nationalists, and quite a few strategic UUP voters.

The DUP cannot, under any circumstances, win South Down. The combined unionist vote is insufficient to slip through the cracks of a divided nationalist vote and steal the seat (like Willie Thompson of yore, over in West Tyrone). The recently announced boundary changes will make this even less likely by transferring some fairly unionist areas in the north of the constituency to Strangford.

So if the DUP 'win' their nasty little battle against Ritchie, forcing her either to resign, or retreat, what effect will this have on South Down?

It cannot strengthen the unionist vote, because that is tribal, and shrinking. It may force Ritchie out of active politics, or at least into a 'lame duck' position.

The only possible beneficiaries of the DUP campaign against Ritchie are Sinn Féin, who are already neck and neck with the SDLP in South Down, and hungry for the seat. If Ritchie is hobbled, and Caitriona Ruane doesn't slip up over the next two years, the seat will go to Sinn Féin when McGrady steps down. The DUP know this too, so why are they gunning for Ritchie so much?

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Unionist and Protestant hypocrisy

The history and current existence of the UDA display in disgusting detail the moral ambivalence of unionists and many northern Protestants towards violence, brutality and the rule of law.

The drip-feed of stories and revelations concerning the extent of collusion between the British government and security forces and loyalist terror-gangs should have provoked a storm of outrage, in Ireland, in Britain, and across the world. It has not done so because here in Ireland, frankly, we expected that kind of dirty behaviour from the British – after all, we have known them for hundreds of years, and cannot forget the enormity of what they have done. In Britain, the dirty war in Ireland was, … well, … in Ireland, and therefore they don't care. And worldwide, public opinion is just too numbed by the sheer number and horror of the dozens of wars, dirty and dirtier, that it has had to digest. What importance have a few hundred Irish people compared with the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, and the millions, who have died, and are still dying, in squalid amoral 'wars' in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America?

Our unionist and Protestant neighbours have frequently claimed the moral high ground. Their opposition to the IRA was because they were 'terrorists'; their support for the union was based on a commitment to the democracy and justice that they claimed Britain exemplified; they supported the RUC and the British army because they supported 'law and order'.

However, the recent storm in a teacup over the withdrawal of funding from the Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI), a UDA-linked 'community group' has exposed the level of latent support within the unionist community, and, regretfully, even the Protestant Church of Ireland, for the UDA.

Let us not forget; the UDA is a criminal gang of vicious sectarian murderers, drug-dealers, pimps and extortionists. They have no justifiable reason to exist, they have never had a justifiable reason to exist, and their existence, actions, and principles should at all times be vigorously criticised by all right-thinking people. No single person who claims to support law and order, democracy, or Christianity should ever provide cover or give support to the UDA.

And yet, in recent days and weeks that is precisely what prominent members of unionist political parties, and the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh have done.

Faced with the decision of the Minister of Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, to withdraw funding from the CTI due to its continued links with an armed criminal gang, the UDA, the leader-in-waiting of the DUP, Minister of Finance Peter Robinson, launched an attack not on the UDA, but on his fellow Minister! This disgraceful episode shows that he, and by extension the DUP, actually wanted the UDA-linked CTI to continue getting public money. He did not congratulate the Minister on her decision, and call on the forces of law and order to smash the UDA - instead he declared her decision contrary to a process set out by the Executive, and inconsistent with the advice offered by the department's legal office and senior counsel.

At the same time as Peter Robinson was trying to shift the critical focus off the UDA and on to the Minister for Social Development, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh effectively excused the UDA's history of brutal murders, by saying that "whatever justification you may have pleaded for retaining weapons of lethal force, that justification no longer exists."

No, Archbishop, you are wrong morally, politically and spiritually – there was never a justification for the UDA to exist or to carry out its disgusting campaigns of random sectarian murder. By implying that somehow, in the past, the UDA may have had some sliver of justification the Archbishop is handing the UDA a retrospective blessing on behalf of a supposedly Christian church. Shame on him, and shame on any members of his church who fail to stand up against all murders and violence.

The UDA are, and have always been, a nasty gang of criminals. They should have been hunted down and imprisoned. Instead, unionist politicians and Protestant churchmen are treating them like members of the family. As long as they continue to do this they cannot claim either the moral high ground, or any credibility as democrats.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Election famine

The announcement by the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, that he would not call a Westminster election in 2007, or probably even in 2008, means that Northern Ireland is going to suffer a rare two-year election famine.

Over the past thirty years there have been 26 Northern Ireland-wide elections; eight for the District Councils, seven Westminster elections, six European Parliament elections, and five elections to local assemblies. This gives an average of almost one NI-wide election per year. Of course, they are sometimes bunched, such as in 1997, 2001 and 2005 when both Westminster and District Council elections were held, but recently voters in Northern Ireland have been getting used to an almost annual unofficial constitutional referendum.

However, with the Assembly having been elected this year for a fixed four year term, the District Councils in 2005 also for a fixed four-year term, and the European Parliament in 2004 for a five-year term, the only electoral opportunity available was the unpredictable Westminster Parliament. Now Gordon Brown has called off his planned election, leaving the political landscape in Northern Ireland frozen in its 2007 shape for two more years.

This has two main consequences.

Firstly, it means that for a period of two years the natural evolution of the northern electorate is going to be invisible. The annual cull of elderly unionists and the annual flood of young nationalists into the electorate are going to be unobserved. In raw figures, every year sees the death of some 10,000 elderly Protestants (and thus unionists), but only 5,000 Catholics. So in the two year period unionism will lose a net 10,000 potential voters – and the elderly have a higher-than-average turnout rate in elections. At the entry point of the electorate the difference is not so stark, but slightly more Catholics reach 18 every year than Protestants, and so new voters are more likely to be nationalist than unionist. Putting the two ends of the electorate together, and we could see the gap between the overall unionist vote and the overall nationalist vote narrowing by some 15,000 votes in the next two years. And remember that that gap was only 42,000 in 2007. The longer the period between elections, the more dramatic the narrowing will look.

Secondly, if Brown avoids an election in 2008, then he is almost certain to call one in 2009. However, according to the fixed schedule of elections to the District Councils and the European Parliament, they will also hold elections in 2009. So 2009 promises to be an election bonanza, with local elections for the newly reconfigured District Councils, Westminster, and the European Parliament. Each of these elections will be different, but each will be hard-fought. They are unlikely to be held on the same day, so the electorate will suffer from voter-fatigue by the end. But by the time the votes are all counted the new political landscape will be clearer, opening up a fascinating campaign for the next elections to the Assembly which will follow in 2011.

The beginning of unionist self-awareness?

As a small follow-up to the item on the Unionist attempt to 'ban' the use of Irish in Stormont that we blogged on 5 October, here is the UUP's David McNarry stuffing his foot into his mouth:

Mr McNarry said the debate was: "A clear definitive signal that unionists are fed up with the Irish language being thrown in their faces." He said his party rejected any nationalist attempt to smear unionists as bigots over discomfort with the use of Irish. He added: "There is no demand here, just a request, no abuse of anybody's rights and I reject any attempt by any republican to smear any unionist by branding him a bigot."

No need, Daithi, no need. You did it all by yourself!

Friday 5 October 2007

Where is the Programme for Government?

The fuss made in the world media about the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive has overshadowed a simple but important detail. The Executive is only a caretaker government until it produces, and implements, its own Programme for Government (PfG).

Since May this year the Executive has been taking fairly minor house-keeping decisions, and Ministers have been making decisions within their areas of responsibility, but there is no agreed framework, and no comprehensive approach to the key issues. Already other parties are starting to notice this inactivity. At some point the big question is going to have to be answered: how does the money get divided up?

The recent hype about a possible Westminster election has encouraged some unionist politicians to retreat to positions of tribal posturing:

  • Nigel Dodds (DUP) took the low moral ground (and here) vis-à-vis Margaret Ritchie's cutting-off of funding for UDA-linked 'community group', thus giving them cover and giving the world the impression that he cares less about UDA guns and thuggishness than he does about getting one over on the taigs. The UUP joined in with a 'warning' to Ritchie that she "will not escape accountability" if efforts to end UDA activity implode over her threat to axe funding for a loyalist project.
  • Peter Robinson (DUP) reacted predictably to the recommendation by the Chairman on Ulster Bank that the northern and southern industrial development bodies should effectively merge. Despite the overwhelming support of most northern businesspeople, unionist and nationalist, for such a move, the Minister for Finance said that it would be "moving along an agenda that is very much a united Ireland agenda". His colleague Jim Shannon stated that "we do not believe that merging INI and the IDA will be beneficial for Northern Ireland Plc". Nigel Dodds (DUP) had been initially less sceptical, calling it an "interesting contribution" but had clearly been pulled back into line, and released two further press releases back-tracking on that mild approach, saying that "as the Minister responsible that there is absolutely no prospect whatsoever of any merger".
  • David McNarry (UUP) wants to table a motion in Stormont to stop Ministers speaking in Irish, because he is "tired of listening to Irish".
  • Nigel Dodds (DUP) and Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) on the issue of the devolution of policing powers – despite everyone supporting it (including a majority of the public, apparently), the DUP say that they will block it, simply to stop Sinn Féin from having co-control.

All of this tribal negativity bodes ill for the prospect of an agreed Programme for Government. The PfG, remember, will have to be fully endorsed by all parties in the Executive – including the DUP. So the sections in it that reflect nationalist positions will have to be endorsed and defended by exactly the same parties and ministers who have spent months attacking those positions!

Can it work? Can the DUP change their tune so completely and quickly? Endorsement of a PfG that will contain pro-nationalist positions and policies is going to cause the DUP to eat a lot of humble pie, and that is certainly not their favourite dish.

So is this why we still have no PfG? Is this why we might never have a PfG? And if we never have a PfG, then what will happen?

Plan B hasn't gone away, you know.

Entry into the Executive was presumed to be a reaction to the possibility of the much-feared (by unionists) Plan B. But what would have been the point of entering the power-sharing Executive to avoid Plan B, and then refusing to implement power-sharing, thereby resurrecting Plan B?

Thursday 20 September 2007

Fianna Fáil to organise in the north

Unionist reaction to the recent announcement that Fianna Fáil will organise in the north is both predictable and revealing. Fianna Fáil's lack of interest in the unionist squawking is also revealing, insofar as it demonstrates that unionism is essentially marginal to their thinking.

Predictably, the unionists are jumping up and down in anger at the thought of any 'southern' party having the cheek to organise in 'their' area. This reaction is one of unionism's oldest and stalest responses. As on other occasions, they have tried to threaten everyone else with dire consequences if Fianna Fáil goes ahead. Their main weapon, expressed by UUP leader Reg Empey, is a crude and badly formulated threat to stop working the current arrangements. As Empey puts it: "the prospect of Fianna Fáil ministers being in both the NI Executive and the Dublin government could put unbearable strain on the political process before it has had a chance to settle down". That little sentence contains both the unionist threat, and the unionist hope. Firstly, that 'unbearable strain' may break the current arrangements – in other words, the unionists may withdraw from them, but without any apparent idea of what consequences that would have. And the 'settling down' Empey refers to, reflects unionism's last shred of hope for its future – that the current arrangements in some way are a 'settlement', rather than a way station.

Alex Kane, a UUP strategist, followed his leader's example with a column in the Newsletter on 19 September, in which he complained that: "these proposals undermine the overriding purpose of removing Articles 2 and 3 – which was to reassure unionists that both sides, across Ireland and in Northern Ireland, could co-exist within their own clearly defined geographical and constitutional territories". This interpretation of the changes to Articles 2 and 3 is novel, at least. It is also, of course, wrong. The new Articles 2 and 3 merely make national unity an aspiration; they certainly do not promise that any party will stay on one or other side of the fence. If Kane really believes that the changes to the Constitution signified the abandonment of the aspiration to unity, then the UUP needs a better strategist!

Kane goes on to say that "Mr Ahern was sticking his nose in where it wasn't wanted", though surely this will be decided by the voters of northern Ireland, and not just by Mr Kane!

Revealingly, Kane also says that and that "the Irish prime minister (sic) seems to have decided that the Belfast Agreement isn't the concluding part of the peace process that some of us believed it to be". Again, this sentence tells us that the unionists really hoped that the GFA was the last word, despite the very wording of the Agreement which clearly indicates the next steps that may be taken along the road to Irish unity.

Lastly, and in the thinly veiled manner of unionist threats, Kane hints at violence: "It is a move which could have very serious, dangerous and violent consequences". For a people who have claimed to be law abiding and peaceful, unionists are never slow to hint at a violent reaction if they don't get their own way.

The unionist over-reaction to Fianna Fáil's perfectly legitimate decision to organise in the north tells us several things – firstly that unionism is still desperately clinging to the fast-sinking notion that the GFA is a 'final settlement', secondly that unionism still believes it can bluster and threaten everyone else with refusals to play the game, and thirdly, that when it realises that its tantrums are getting it nowhere, unionism still feels that it is acceptable to threaten violence.

Friday 14 September 2007

Phoney war, or phoney peace?

At the start of the second World War, from the declaration of war by France and Britain up to the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940, there was a period during which neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground. This period became known as the Phoney War.

In Northern Ireland the same thing is happening, but it is not yet clear whether it is a phoney war or a phoney peace. Both sides have signed up to power-sharing, but on the unionist side at least they have not yet committed to any significant compromises with their nationalist 'partners'. On the contrary, there have been numerous examples of unionists, particularly from the DUP, sniping at the 'enemy'; from trying to rubbish Sinn Féin's proposals for tax varying powers, to criticising the plans for a stadium at the Maze, to dismissing the idea of a united Ireland as an "impossible myth", to trying to block an Irish Language Act, and so on.

Meanwhile the real battle has not even started, or at least not yet publicly. The Executive has not yet agreed its Programme for Government, and one can only imagine the discussions that are going on behind closed doors to try to find a Programme that both sides will sign up to. As so often, the DUP is busy painting itself into a corner – by publicly sniping at suggestions from Sinn Féin, they are limiting their own room for manoeuvre. If they think that Sinn Féin are going to accept a Programme for Government that contains only DUP-friendly proposals, then they are showing political immaturity. The Programme for Government will have to have as much in it for Sinn Féin as for the DUP, and will probably have to contain things that DUP MLAs have publicly denounced. Where will they then stand? Will they eat humble pie, or will they desert the party, as so many lower-level members have already done? Will they join Jim Allister's planned new party?

One thing is for certain – once the Programme for Government is published the phoney war (or phoney peace) will end. The sniping will have to cease, because the Programme will be a Programme for the whole Executive, DUP included. Either the snipers will split the DUP, leading to an all-out (political) war, or they will be silenced and marginalised and all-out peace may break out, complete with officially sanctioned republican-friendly policies, and fully functioning North-South Ministerial structures. The next few months promise to be interesting!

Tuesday 3 July 2007

A twenty year countdown?

Readers of this blog will be aware that the unionist majority in Northern Ireland is dwindling, and that within a generation Protestants will be a minority of the population. Evidence of these trends is visible in a number of different areas:

  • the unionist majority that has, on several occasions, fallen below 50% of the overall vote,
  • the clear downward trend in the unionist proportion of the vote, and the clear upward trend of the nationalist proportion,
  • the fact that Protestants make up much fewer than half of schoolchildren,
  • the fact that Protestants make up two-thirds of the elderly (and thus two-thirds of all deaths)
  • the fact that fertility rates in Catholic areas are still higher than those in Protestant areas,
  • the fact that more than half of all religious weddings now take place in Catholic churches,
  • the concern of unionist politicians about the 'Protestant brain drain' amongst university students

… and so on.

This blog has pointed out (and here and here and here and here) that these trends will not have an overnight effect. Each year only a tiny proportion of the Northern Irish population is born, or dies, or goes to university in England. The best estimate that can be made, taking all of the visible trends into account, is that Northern Ireland will have a Catholic majority by around 2020, but will have to wait a few more years until there is a Catholic majority of the electorate (as the majority Catholic children of 2020 will still not have a vote).

It seems that this blog is not alone in its analysis.

On 29 June 2007 The Newsletter quoted a "senior Irish government source" as saying that "they did not expect the constitutional position of Northern Ireland to be raised again for 20 to 25 years". And "one senior Irish source told the News Letter: There is no appetite or plans in Dublin to get into an Irish unity debate in five years' time or anything like that." This, the Newsletter misinterpreted as a complete lack of interest in Irish unity by the south - indeed it titled its article 'United Ireland 'off the agenda'.

The Dublin government was quick to refute this. In the Irish Times of 3 July 2007, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said that "the Government's position on Irish unity remains unchanged". The spokesman said that the Government's position had been clearly outlined by the Taoiseach in his Westminster speech last May when he had said that "As an Irish republican, it is my passionate hope that we will see the island of Ireland united in peace."

The Dublin government is far from stupid. It knows, as does this blog, that there will not be either a Catholic or a nationalist majority in five years time (or even in 2016), and so has no intention of pushing for a border poll that would be lost. However, the demographic changes that are already underway will deliver both a Catholic majority, and a nationalist majority, in about "20 to 25 years", exactly the time period foreseen by the Dublin government for 'raising the constitutional position of Northern Ireland again'.

Friday 22 June 2007

2005 Labour Force Survey Religion Report

The 2005 Labour Force Survey (LFS) Religion Report has just been published by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). It can be downloaded from:

It is full of tables and graphs showing every permutation possible of age, gender, economic activity, and of course religion. As such it is a fascinating source of information on how many workers, unemployed people, and so on, are either Catholic, Protestant or 'other'.

The statistics revealing that Catholics are, for example, more likely to be unemployed than Protestants, or more likely to be students, are interesting, but for the purposes of this blog the key statistic is the breakdown of the overall working-age population by religion. The LFS doesn't cover school kids, so its figures for the Catholic proportion of the overall population 16+ are probably lower than the whole cradle-to-grave population. A further point to note is that the LFS is based on a sample, and so the figures vary quite a lot from one year to the next. Nonetheless, the overall trends revealed by the LFS are quite clear:
  • The Protestant proportion of the population aged 16+ is dropping, and the Catholic proportion is rising,
  • Between the ages of 16-24 there are more Catholics than Protestants (and this has probably been the case since around the year 2000),
  • The population aged 60+ is still around two-thirds Protestant,
  • The number of Catholics who are full-time students is considerably higher than the number of Protestants (providing fuel, of course, for the 'Protestant brain drain' worries of the unionists),
  • A considerably higher proportion of Catholic households have dependent children, than Protestant households, and they have more of them.

All of which adds up to the inescapable conclusion that there is already a Catholic majority under the age of 24, and it is going to continue (look at the dependent children). As these young Catholics grow up, they will increasingly replace the older Protestants who are dying at double the rate of Catholics. The Catholic students will, as has been shown in other blogs here, tend to stay in Northern Ireland, thereby ensuring that the professions and the top echelons of business and administration will become majority Catholic.

The geographic split (also shown in the LFS) shows clearly that the areas of Protestant majority are shrinking back to the old areas of north Down and south Antrim colonised by Hamilton and Montgomery before the official Plantation, but with the added factor of a soon-to-be-majority-Catholic Belfast in the middle.

Thursday 21 June 2007

They must be getting REALLY worried ... !

On top of all of the other references to the (Protestant) 'brain drain' that are blogged below, the concerned unionist Tom Elliott MLA was reported in the Newsletter on 20 June 2007 as being "shocked to discover just how many more Roman Catholics are staying in the Province to study - suggesting a Protestant brain drain".

Poor Mr Elliott has inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. It is not the 'brain drain' per se that unionists are concerned about, but only the protestant brain drain. As the media-unsavvy Mr Elliott went on to say, "This is an important issue as many of these students who travel to mainland universities do not return to work in the Province". Of course, as previously pointed out, what really vexes him is that they do not return to vote in Northern Ireland.

If Mr Elliott was commenting on a report by an employers' organisation complaining of skills shortages in a booming economy, then his concern for the 'non-returners' might be reasonable. But he isn't, he is making a petty, sectarian point that illustrates the level of worry that is starting to permeate the unionist establishment.

It seems that their years of denying the inevitability of demographic change are starting to give way to anger; if they continue to follow the classic model of sequential stages of grief (for their dead Project Ulster), then we can look forward to bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Some may argue that the Good Friday Agreement, and the St Andrews diktat, were a form of bargaining, but there is little evidence that the DUP has really accepted the need to bargain. Maybe the next few years might see the beginnings of some real bargaining in the Assembly and Executive - however since the demographic changes cannot be 'bargained' away, the next stage - depression - is almost an inevitability for poor unionism. Acceptance will probably come sometime during the 2020's, when unionism is a political minority with an age-profile that will ensure that it has no future.

Monday 4 June 2007

Getting to grips with the [Protestant] brain drain

Ian Paisley has returned to the issue of Northern Ireland's supposed 'brain drain'. He is reported to have told the Business in the Community Awards in Belfast City Hall that it was essential the brain-drain is stopped if Northern Ireland is to develop hi-tech and knowledge-based industries.

Why is it only the unionist parties that seem to consider this an important issue?

In January the UUP's Ken Robinson said:

"In 2004, of 32.5% of Northern-Ireland based students who study on the mainland, two thirds will not return to Northern Ireland. At this rate we are losing 20% of our university educated young people on an annual basis. "

Then in February Kenny Donaldson, also of the UUP, repeated much the same thing:

"Two-thirds of our young people who go elsewhere for higher education will never return. Far too many of our talented young people are being lost to Northern Ireland. Our economy is losing 20% of our university-educated young people on an annual basis. This exodus greatly undermines our aim of creating a competitive, knowledge-based economy fit for the challenges of the new century."

Jeffrey Donaldson thinks that the non-return rate is 75%! Leslie Cree, Thomas Burns, and many other unionist politicos are singing from a similar hymnsheet.

And now in June we have Paisley joining in, parroted by party colleague Robin Newton in the Newsletter on 30 May (and on the DUP website) who added "The Executive must kick off a programme of attracting back those who have gained valuable international experience and who can make a positive contribution."

Does he mean "who can make a positive contribution … to the unionist vote?"

Could it be that what is really concerning them is that the 'brain drain' is actually a Protestant drain? This has been known about for quite some time, and was commented on by the (London) Independent in 2004:

An exodus of some of the brightest young Protestants is contributing to an extraordinary process of social change in Northern Ireland, according to an academic study. [ … ]

The brain drain, which has been going on for decades, refers to the trend for many Protestant teenagers to go to universities in England and Scotland and find jobs there instead of returning home. The pattern has even generated its own facetious acronym - NIPPLES - which stands for Northern Ireland Protestant Professionals Living in England and Scotland.

Partly due to this exodus, Catholics now make up around 60 per cent of undergraduates at Northern Ireland's two universities, with the proportion of Catholic graduates and those taking more of the desirable jobs steadily rising.

You can see why the unionists are getting worried. Now that everyone has agreed that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland will be decided by a head count, the continued loss of so many unionist heads must be giving them cause for concern.

Amongst other things, the unionist identification with intolerant religious fundamentalism is a major contributor to their own problems. As Linda Gilby put it in the Sunday Life on 3 June, in a reference to Paisley (junior)'s recent anti-gay remarks:

[Paisley (senior)] pointed out that we need to stop the Northern Ireland brain drain, that it's essential to hold on to our brightest people if our economy is to prosper.

No argument there, but he could make a start by putting his own house in order.

Having a quiet word with his son and namesake should start the ball rolling.

Then, all those local, bright, shiny graduates who have received their university education across the water won't feel as if they are setting their watches back 50 years when they return here again.

Monday 30 April 2007

Demographic suicide

Right-wing Americans, particularly those on the Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party, point to falling European birth rates as a sign that European societies have given themselves completely over to the pursuit of pleasure, to the point that they are committing demographic suicide. They love to extrapolate birth-rates to demonstrate that, as one commentator put it, "in 200 years, French and German will be spoken exclusively in hell".!

As with all the best propaganda, there is a shred of truth in what they say. In theory, a society with a Total Period Fertility Rate (TPFR) below 2.1 children per woman (the 'replacement level') will shrink in size, unless immigration replaces the 'missing' children. Immigration is, of course, an unknown – some societies do not attract immigrants, and even those that do, cannot be certain what kind of immigrants they will attract. Some societies do actually shrink – modern-day Russia is a large and important example.

Immigration may save a society from disappearance, but it will change its appearance. If fewer children are born to the 'host' community, and the difference is made up by other people, then the society becomes less like the 'host' community – in certain cases, this can lead to a dramatic change over a relatively small period of time.

In Northern Ireland several generations ago Protestants were a clear majority. The religious breakdown of the elderly shows that they were in a majority at one time even in areas that are now considered 'green' – Cookstown District Council area now has a Catholic majority (57.6%), which rises to around 62% amongst the children, yet amongst its elderly residents Catholics form only a minority, falling to 39.1% amongst the over-90s. Down District, currently 62% Catholic, has an even lower proportion of Catholics amongst its over-90s: 37.4%. Dungannon, Fermanagh, Limavady, Magherafelt, and Moyle all show the same phenomenon. Other areas show either a Catholic majority that is getting larger, or a Catholic minority that is getting larger ( - look for table s305_dc_level.xls).

This tipping of the balance has not come about through immigration, but by higher birth-rates amongst Catholics than amongst Protestants. Until 1992 both religious groups had birth-rates that were over the replacement level, but the Catholic rate was so great that their share of the population gradually increased.

Recently, though, birth-rates have tended to reduce, mirroring those of the rest of Europe. The latest Total Period Fertility Rate statistics for Northern Ireland show an overall figure of 1.95 births per woman – well below the replacement level of 2.1. It would appear therefore, that Northern Ireland is committing demographic suicide.

But this overall conclusion masks some important variations in the TPFR at local level. In the 2005 Annual Report of the Registrar General, two areas with solid Catholic majorities (Newry and Mourne, and Dungannon) have TPFRs over the replacement level, and the solidly Protestant areas of Larne, Carrickfergus, Coleraine and North Down have TPFRs significantly lower than the average (1.85 for the period 2003-2005). In fact, of the 11 Catholic-majority areas, 8 have a TPFR above the average. Of the 13 Protestant-majority areas only 6 have an above-average TPFR. In Belfast and Armagh neither religion has a majority. Of the 8 'least-Catholic' districts only one – Ballymena – has a TPFR over the average.

The table below summarises the situation at local level, with the districts shown in order of the 'Catholicity':

[table removed temporarily]

In some 'Protestant' areas with an above-average TPFR, it is clear from the increasing Catholic proportion of the younger children (ages 0-4), that this is largely due to a higher fertility rate amongst the Catholic minority – in Ballymena, Ballymoney, Craigavon, Antrim and Lisburn the proportion of children who are Catholic is greater than the proportion of the parents who are Catholic.

So is Northern Ireland committing demographic suicide, or is it just Protestant 'Ulster'?

Tuesday 17 April 2007

Is Unionism a Cargo Cult?

A 'cargo cult' is an unorthodox pseudo-religious movement, generally associated with the isolated islands of Melanesia and New Guinea in the post World War II era. In cargo cults the native inhabitants are so over-awed by the material wealth of outsiders (which appeared from the sky as 'cargo' on airplanes), for which they can see no obvious explanation bar the supernatural. The native inhabitants believe that this wealth is associated with the (to them) weird rituals, such as sitting in a control tower, or speaking into a box (i.e. a radio), and so on. In order to try to get hold of a share of this magical wealth the native inhabitants often mimic the behaviour of the wealthy outsiders. The term 'cargo cult' is invoked as an English language idiom, to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance. Symbols they associate with the outsiders tend to be incorporated into their rituals as magical artefacts.

Famous examples of cargo cult activity include the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, offices and the fetishisation and attempted construction of western goods, such as radios made of coconuts and straw. Believers may stage 'drills' and 'marches' with twigs for rifles and military-style insignia and 'USA' painted on their bodies to make them look like soldiers, treating the activities of western military personnel as rituals to be performed for the purpose of attracting cargo.

The concept of the cargo cult is also used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony takes place but goes unrewarded due to a flawed model of causation.

Does any of this sound familiar in the Northern Ireland context?

...the imitation of the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance …

The pathetic attempts by the UUP recently to mimic iconic 'British' things in their election campaigns: double-decker buses, fish and chips, and the disastrous 'Simply British' slogan?
The whole long and torturous history of Project Ulster, with its carbon-copy institutions, insignia, titles, rituals, and so on; its superficial adherence to 'British democracy' while having no real understanding of what democracy really was; its superficial adherence to 'British justice' while running a police state that even South Africa's apartheid regime was envious of!

… the incorporation of symbols they associate with the outsiders into their rituals as magical artefacts …

The flags, the flags, the flags!

The raising of archaic 'British' artefacts into objects of ritual by the Orange Order – those bowler hats, what on earth is that all about? Nobody in England wears a bowler hat, not has done for half a century, except on the stage.

…the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, offices …

Stormont, with its 'Prime Minister', 'Lord Chief Justice', 'House of Commons', the whole shebang – they set up a whole toy-town version of a real government, with bicameral legislature, executive, judiciary, the lot … for a corner of Ireland containing barely 1.3 million people!

… the fetishisation of the admired outsiders objects …

The flags, the flags, the flags!

And of course, let's not forget their childish upset when Patton took away the 'Royal' part of their police force's name!

The obsessive interest in Britain royalty (an aberration shared by many people outside Northern Ireland, of course); so much that two of Belfast's main bridges, side by side, are called 'Queen's Bridge' and 'Queen Elizabeth Bridge'. A kinder person might say that this displays a profound lack of imagination, but I am not that person.

… the staging of 'drills' and 'marches' with twigs for rifles and military-style insignia and 'USA' painted on their bodies …

The Orange Order has been the biggest and most obvious manifestation of unionism's cargo cult since Stormont was abolished in 1972. The Orange Order spends a ridiculous amount of time marching around in formation, wearing 'uniforms' that represent the Britain of yesteryear, and waving the symbols of their devotion. In a bizarre twist of the 'USA' bodypainting, many Orange supporters do even paint their faces with the flag of their admired mother country!

… the ill-considered effort and ceremony taking place but going unrewarded …

Untold millions of hours, and uncounted sums of money, are wasted by the unionist natives trying to persuade their British patrons that they are 'just like them', and that they should be seen, not as a strange tribe in a foreign land, but as true brothers in Britishness. And yet, one of the constant refrains of unionism is that its efforts are not appreciated by the real British. Older unionists, remembering the Second World War will say 'how can they abandon us after all we did?', while others see betrayal in every compromise made by the British government, in every meeting with nationalists, in every opening to the south.

Unionist angst over its ultimate betrayal by Britain leads towards ever more desperate attempts to 'prove' their Britishness, seemingly unaware that their very cargo cultism is one of the most striking proofs of 'otherness' possible.

Thursday 12 April 2007

Safe in the arms of the Lord

No-one likes to think about death. It is a sad, but inevitable, reality that will come to us all sooner or later. On a personal level it is a tragedy to the deceased and to his or her friends and family.

In Northern Ireland, of course, even death is political. Older people are far more likely to be Protestant than younger people: for example, the 2001 Census showed that while 67% of those aged over 90 are Protestant, only 39% of those aged between 10 and 20 are Protestant. And of course, most deaths occur amongst the old. The effect of this is that most deaths are of Protestants. By comparing the latest available age-specific figures for deaths (from the 2005 Annual Report of the Registrar-General) with table s306 'Age By Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In' from the 2001 Census, it can be easily shown that 66.7% of the 14,224 deaths in 2005 were Protestants, and less than half that figure (32.3%) were Catholics.

A disproportionate death rate would not matter, of course, if there was a matching disproportion at the younger ages. But there is not: Catholics outnumber Protestants in the younger age groups by around 5%. In crude terms, around the same number of Protestants are dying and being born, while the Catholic population is increasing by around 6,000 every year. The effect is simple: the Protestant-majority older age-groups are dying, and being replaced by new Catholic-majority age-groups. The see-saw is tilting.

For unionism, each Protestant funeral is doubly poignant, because it signifies not only the death of a loved one, but also the slow and inevitable death of their whole Project Ulster.

Thursday 29 March 2007

Why did Dr No say "yes"?

So Dr No has finally said "Yes". Most of the commentary on his new position has been fairly positive (and here), and has interpreted his change of mind as a mark of generosity of spirit. Others, however, have been less uncritical.

Dean Godson, biographer of David Trimble, in an article in The Times asked; "So, Dr No, what exactly were the last 40 years all about?", and came to the conclusion that Paisley's motivation was mainly to do with getting his hands on power, and becoming "top dog", while ignoring the "project of creeping condominium with the Republic" that Godson believes faceless bureaucrats are pushing through.

Godson may, of course, be completely wrong about Paisley. And his question may be back-to-front: perhaps the last 40 years are what has brought Paisley to the position he is in now.

Consider the world Paisley lived in 40 years ago. It was one in which the unionist hegemony in Northern Ireland was as yet unchallenged; in which it seemed that the main opposition to unionism in the Stormont Parliament would come from the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Nationalists were divided, marginal and powerless. The Unionist proportion of the vote was over 66%, and in reality much higher as many unionist seats were unopposed (and thus their votes uncounted). Project Ulster appeared to have worked; the Protestant People had their Protestant Parliament, their Protestant police force, their hands on all of the levers of power. The south was a poor and agricultural country, haemorrhaging its youth through the emigrant boats, and could offer no alternative pole of attraction for the demoralised nationalists of the north.

Project Ulster was at its zenith – many of its people had fought in the Second World War, and still felt the glow of pride that that common endeavour had given them. The economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s had given middle-class Protestants a quality of life that they saw as vindication of their union with Britain. Unionists and Protestants were numerically superior to all others, and saw no reason for this to change. This was the world in which Paisley, and many others, grew up and absorbed their political and religious values.

Out of view, however, dissent was growing. What precisely led to the outburst that became a war, and then a peace process, is open to debate. But during the 40 years of that transition from uneasy peace back to uneasy peace, many things have changed. While Paisley's position at the end of the 40 years is completely different to his position before, and during, those long years, the reason could be that he has recognised the changes, and their significance.

Consider the following:

  • In the 1969 Stormont election, Unionists won over 66% of the vote. In the 2007 Stormont election they won 48.7%.
  • In 1961 the Census recorded that 34.9% of the population was Catholic. In 2001, the Census recorded that 43.8% of the population was Catholic (by community background).
  • In the 1960s a majority of school-children were Protestant. In 2007 the majority is Catholic – Protestants make up barely 40% of primary school children.
  • In the 1960s Northern Ireland's university students were mainly Protestant. In 2007 a majority of students in both QUB and the UU are Catholic.
  • In the 1967 59.9% of marriages took place in Protestant churches. In 2005 barely 35% of marriages took place in Protestant churches.
  • In the 1960s the south was poor. In 2007 it is one of the world's richest countries.
  • In the 1960s the south had high rates of tax. In 2007 one of unionisms main demands is a cut in corporation tax in Northern Ireland to bring it into line with the low rate in the south.
  • In the 1960s the British government allowed the unionists a free hand with their Project Ulster, and ignored any approaches from the south concerning the north. By 2007 the British government had removed most of unionism's power, and was running the north almost in cooperation with Dublin.
  • In the 1960s Paisley started a riot in order to remove one Irish flag in a shop window in a nationalist area. In 2007 he has agreed to share power with Sinn Féin in an arrangement that guarantees: the right of free political thought; the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations; the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means; and the right to freedom from sectarian harassment.

Paisley, I believe, has had his 'road to Damascus' moment. Not quite a conversion, I accept, but certainly an opening of the eyes. He has fought a tough fight, played dirty, used every trick, every insult, and every sneer he could think of. But ultimately, cold facts have shown him that his position was untenable. In our modern democratic world it is numbers and votes that count, and that has turned out to be Project Ulster's Achilles Heel. The sneer of the Protestant, that the Catholic breeds like a rabbit, has turned out to be, ironically, true. Through consistently higher birth-rates, the Catholic population of Northern Ireland is going to exceed the Protestant population sometime during the next generation. This fact is evident from a wide variety of sources; the Census, marriage records, birth rates, the Schools Census, election results, etc. Every party in Northern Ireland has its number-crunchers, even the DUP, and they are all telling their bosses the same thing. It seems to have finally sunk in.

Maybe Paisley has simply, and finally, accepted that Project Ulster is dead, and decided to dump it and move to his own Plan B: Project Northern Ireland. By continuing to push for a repressive and exclusive 'Ulster' he was risking everything, and ensuring that tomorrow's nationalist majority would unceremoniously dump it. But by tactically switching to an inclusive and 'softer' Project Northern Ireland, he is hoping to save at least the core of the project, the union with Britain.

Tuesday 27 March 2007

Protestant brain drain?

The media regularly alludes to a brain drain out of Northern Ireland, though for many years the ordinary person probably felt that the emigrés were the lucky ones: rats who were able to get off the sinking ship.

Closer attention started to be paid, especially by the unionist parties, once it became clear that the brain drain was not religiously balanced. In an article in The Irish Times on 6 February 2007, Bob Osborne, Director of the social and policy research institute at the University of Ulster, pointed out that:
" ... the proportion of Protestants who leave for study is twice as high as for Catholics. This factor, together with the younger age profile of the Catholic community, helps explain why the two Northern Ireland universities are predominantly Catholic. About 55 per cent of students at Queens and 60 per cent at the University of Ulster are Catholic. [...]

Major employers such as the Northern Ireland civil service show Catholics forming the majority among younger age groups while Protestants have a much higher representation among the 50-plus age group. This trend is bound to produce major change over time.
So, the exodus of some of the best and the brightest from the Protestant community is shifting the balance in the graduate labour market and ultimately to the jobs profiles of the two communities. [...]

Whether unionist politicians will admit it or not this exodus from the protestant middle class looks like a vote of no confidence in Northern Ireland.
Allied to anecdotal evidence of Protestants reaching retirement and moving to Britain where their graduate children (and grandchildren) now live add further to the sense of desertion. A community which exports such a substantial proportion of its most able students over such a long time risks losing the dynamism and energy for renewal in political leadership and civic life."

The issue was taken up by the UUP in 2005, though, of course, they were a little coy about their real interest, which Bob Osborne referred to in his last paragraph.

So what are the facts?

The latest statistics available from the Department of Employment and Learning relate to 2001-2002, but are probably representative. They show the total numbers of Northern Irish school leavers who entered institutions of higher education in NI and GB by religion. Of the students who study in Northern Ireland, fully 58% are Catholic, and only 37% are Protestant. The students who go to Britain to study are, on the other hand 53% Protestant, and only 34% Catholic. If you assume that at least half of those who declared no religion were 'cultural Protestants', the overall Protestant proportion of the student emigrés reaches almost 59%.

Does it matter where people study?

Again, the Department of Employment and Learning comes to the rescue! In their Statistical Bulletin Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education: Northern Ireland, 2004/05 of 11 August 2006, they explain the significance:

Of the 5,455 NI domiciled undergraduates who attained qualifications through full-time study at Higher Education institutions in NI and had data returned, 91% of those whose location of employment was known remained in NI, 5% went to GB and 3% went to RoI.

But, of the 1,995 NI domiciled undergraduates who attained qualifications through full-time study at Higher Education institutions in GB and had data returned, 36% of those whose location of employment was known returned to NI, 56% remained in GB and 4% went to RoI.

So, in a nutshell, if you leave to go to university in Britain, you are more likely to stay there. The significance is clear: Catholics stay in Northern Ireland to study, and stay there after graduating. Protestants who go to England or Scotland are likely to stay there after graduating.

The effect is to increase the proportion of the university-goers in Northern Ireland that is Catholic from 51.5% before they go to university, to 54.8% four years later, after graduation.

The proportion that is Protestant, as a result of the imbalanced brain drain, drops from 41.6% at school-leaving, to 39.4% four years later!

Friday 23 March 2007

Schools Census

Every year the Department of Education carries out a Schools Census, which counts, inter alia, the numbers of children in all the schools in Northern Ireland, and their religion.

The results for the 2006-2007 school year were published on 14 March 2007, and they make interesting reading, throwing light onto the shape of the Northern Ireland that these kids will be creating.

For example, for all of the years 2000 to 2007 a majority of the kids are declared Catholic. The percentage is fairly stable, at a little over 50%. On the other hand, the percentage of declared Protestant kids is declining, from 42,7% in 2000-1 to 39,5% in 2006-7. The 'other Christian' kids are an increasing, though small group, and the non-Christians are a small and fairly stable group.

The third largest group is composed of a joint 'other/no religion/not recorded' category, which makes up 7,5% of the total (up from 5% in 2000). In the often-tense environment of Northern Irish society, it is likely that a proportion of these are kids who want to keep their heads down in a hostile environment. So the fact that the vast majority of this category attends Protestant-majority schools could lead to several conclusions;
  • They are overwhelmingly cultural (or 'tribal') Protestants, and the number of 'heads down' Catholics is small,
  • There are both cultural Protestants and Catholics in similar numbers,
  • They are mostly 'heads down' Catholics.

If the first possibility is correct, then the proportion of Catholics overall is very little different to that recorded; perhaps barely 51%. If the second possibility is correct, the overall proportion of Catholics is around 54%. If the third is correct, then the overall proportion of Catholics could be 57%. In general, then, we can only say that, amongst school-kids, between 51% and 57% are Catholic, and between 40% and 46% are Protestant. Hence even the highest estimate for Protestants is lower than the lowest estimate for Catholics.

Some conclusions can be drawn from this: firstly, unionism will be a minority political creed when these kids are adults. Secondly, for those who join at age 18, the 50/50 recruitment to the PSNI does not discriminate against Protestants - on the contrary, it discriminates in their favour!