Monday 10 March 2008

Fáilte ó Rt Hon. Peter Robinson

Here's something you probably never expected to see. In a leaflet publicising the 'Make IT secure' campaign, Peter Robinson, DUP Minister for Finance, has put his name, his photo, and his signature, to an Irish language text:

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Anyone with any knowledge of the public service will know that this could not have happened without the agreement of Robinson himself, or from one of his close advisors.

This raises interesting questions. Firstly, in the light of the DUP's open hostility towards the Irish language, why has Robinson agreed to put his name and signature to an Irish language leaflet? Secondly, why has this happened at this particular moment, when Robinson is being lined up to succeed Paisley as DUP leader? Quite apart from the Irish language aspect to the issue, the campaign is a clear example of the kind of north-southery that the DUP used to have such an objection to. A campaign that could just as easily have been 'UK-wide' is instead Ireland-wide, with Robinson placed below the southern Minister, Eoin Ryan, in the leaflet's lay-out.

Recently Edwin Poots, DUP Minister for Culture, has been receiving a lot of negative publicity (from a nationalist perspective) for his blatant discrimination against the Irish language, which, to be fair, is merely a reflection of the backwoods mentality so prevalent in the DUP. Poots is, of course, a member of the DUP's 'bigot brigade'. Is the 'Make IT secure' leaflet a shot over his bows from a member of the DUP's 'modern' wing? Is Robinson trying to subtly hint to nationalists that under his leadership the DUP will be less hostile to Irish culture? The leaflet was, of course, prepared and translated before Paisley's abdication, but everyone knew that that abdication was coming, so perhaps Robinson was already setting out his stall. If so, expect Poots to be moved or demoted in Robinson's first reshuffle of the DUP ministers.

Monday 3 March 2008

The laughter of our children

The political future of an octogenarian is dominating our news these days, giving the impression that the future of Northern Ireland will be decided by when Ian Paisley decides to retire. But the real future of Northern Ireland is being decided elsewhere, right at the other end of the age spectrum.

Last week the Department of Education released its annual Schools Census, a compendium of statistics of only slight interest to those outside the education system.

With one important exception: Table 5b of the compendium gives the religion of pupils in the education system.

What Table 5b shows is that Protestant children are a minority in the education system, and a declining minority too. In 2007/2008 the proportion of children whose religion was given as Protestant was 39%. This broke down as 39.5% in secondary schools and 38.5% in primary schools. The proportion who were Catholic was 50.7% (51.2% in secondary, 50.5% in primary).

There were also a small proportion from other Christian and non-Christian religions, but not enough to have any significant impact on the statistics. The only other group that was significant were those children described as 'Other/No religion/Not recorded', who accounted for 7.6% of the total.

Unionist deniers will, no doubt, claim that these 'Other/No religion/Not recorded' children are mostly (ex-)Protestants, as they appear mostly in schools in the controlled sector, which is overwhelmingly Protestant. However this claim cannot be verified, and these kids might easily be Catholics who do not wish to draw attention to themselves, or the children of mixed marriages whose religious identity is neutral. But even if one assumes that 70% of the 'Other/No religion/Not recorded' children are (ex-)Protestants, the picture still looks grim for the future of unionism, and thus for Project Ulster.

The 2007/2008 Schools Census has been carried out for a number of years, and thus it is possible to look at the evolution of the Catholic and Protestant proportions of Northern Ireland's school kids since 1999/2000.

The three graphs below show (a) the breakdown of the raw figures (Catholic and Protestant kids only), (b) the possible breakdown if one assumes the 'Other/No religion/Not recorded' children are evenly divided between the two main blocks, and (c) the possible breakdown if one assumes the 'Other/No religion/Not recorded' children are 70% 'cultural' Protestants, and 30% 'cultural' Catholics.

(a) Raw figures: Catholic and Protestant children in primary and secondary schools

(b) Adjusted figures: assuming that the 'Other/No religion/Not recorded' children are evenly divided between the two main blocks

(c) Adjusted figures: assuming that the 'Other/No religion/Not recorded' children are 70% 'cultural' Protestants, and 30% 'cultural' Catholics

The picture is clear. No matter how you try to sway the statistics, the Protestant proportion is declining, and the Catholic proportion is rising. This clear outcome mirrors the increasing proportion of religious marriages that are Catholic, and the higher birth-rate in Catholic areas. And it all adds up to one simple conclusion – Project Ulster has been beaten in the maternity wards, and it is all over bar the shouting. The whole basis of unionism's division of Ireland – its local majority in the north-eastern corner – is visible evaporating, and with it will go the division. Unionism has a short window of opportunity, before these kids grow up and vote it into oblivion, to come to an honourable settlement with their fellow Irishmen and women – but there is no indication yet that that reality has yet sunk into the consciousness of the leaders of unionism. Perhaps, like Paisley, they know that they personally will no longer be around when the day of Irish reunification comes, and so they are content to leave their children and grandchildren to their own devices.