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!

One small step

On 7 March Northern Ireland went to the polls for the nineth time since the Good Friday Agreement, and the 18th time in the last 20 years. The reporting of the results of this election have emphasised the success of the DUP, and to a lesser extent, of Sinn Féin. The impression given is that the DUP has won a great victory and has been vindicated in its hard-line position.

However, at this (umpteenth) crossroads in Northern Ireland's history, with Dr No still playing hard to get, only the churlish would point out that this recent election marks no victory for unionism. On the contrary, obscured by the DUP's increased vote and seat count, the election demonstrated another small step towards the eventual demise of Project Ulster.

Yes, the DUP increased its vote. But it did this at the expense of its fellow unionists, and the overall unionist vote decreased by almost 4%, dipping below 50% for the fourth time in history. Unionism (often described as the "majority community") used to receive over 60% of the vote in the 1970s. By the 1980s that proportion had started to slip into the high 50s; by the 1990s it was heading into the low 50s, and, in 1997 it slipped below 50% for the first time ever.
Since 1997 the unionist vote has been hovering around the 50% mark, sometimes above, but in 2001 and 2004 dipping below. And now, in 2007, unionism is below 50% again, and at its lowest ever point. And, unlike some commentators, I am being charitable, and counting as unionist every possible pro-union candidate (DUP, UUP, PUP, UKUP, UKIP, Conservative, even some independent candidates).

So while the DUP scored an impressive 36 seats in the Assembly election, the overall unionist seat count went down! The DUP's gains were over-compensated by the UUP's losses, and instead of 59 seats in the 2003-2007 Assembly, unionism now has 55.

Some may say that comparing 2007 to 2003 is unfair, as the Alliance Party committed near-suicide in 2003 in order to 'Save Dave'. In 2007, fed up with the UUP (like everyone else, it seems), Alliance voters returned to their own fold, and gave their party an impressive result. So compare 2007 with 1998, then: unionist vote down 2%, and seats down 3. Oops, still no joy!

On the other side of the fence (or wall, if you live in Belfast), the nationalist vote has been edging up. In 1998 it stood at 39,7%; in 2003 at 40,7%, and in 2007 at 42,6%. Not a revolution, I grant you, but certainly an evolution!

In terms of seats, nationalism has gone from 42 in 1998 and 2003, to 44 today.

So what does it all mean? In simple terms, it reflects the political outworking of the growth in the Catholic proportion of Northern Ireland's population. That growth is far from reaching its plateau: the elderly in Northern Ireland are still overwhelmingly Protestant (and thus mostly unionist), and a majority of the children are Catholic (and thus will be mostly nationalist). So there is still a lot of shrinkage coming for unionism, and growth for nationalism, and there is not much that unionism can do about it!

The 2007 election represents nothing new, just another small step along a road that we have all been travelling since the 1970s. For unionism it represents just another reminder of their inevitable fate, the nightmare of being outnumbered and outvoted somewhere down the line. Northern Ireland is probably the most-counted place on earth, and so this election can been looked at in the context of the 17 others in the last 20 years, and patterns can be identified. Those patterns are quite clear: some time in the next decade unionism is going to enter a period of permanent minority, where it will have to co-exist with a nationalism of virtually the same size. The centre parties should have their moment of power, as king-makers, but the Good Friday Agreement mechanisms make them largely powerless. After a decade or so of tense co-existence nationalism will pull ahead, probably in the 2020s, and the re-unification of Ireland will become possible.