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.