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.

1 comment:

FAHA said...

I would like to comment on the school census and your analysis. I actually did an analysis of the 2001 school census by comparing the data in the school census with the 2001 census of Northern Ireland. The Catholic population in the school census was actually 0.45% higher in the school census. The None/ Not responding group was also 0.6% higher. Assuming half of that 0.6% was Catholic, the school census recorded a Catholic population 0.75% higher than the Northern Ireland census recorded for those age groups in the primary and secondary school range.
Why this discrepancy since they were both conducted on nearly the same date ? There were 2 sources of error. Apparently 5% of the Northern Ireland people never returned census forms and when the census department tracked down many of these people the Catholic percentage was over 50% among those people. Thus, Catholics were more likely to fail to return the census forms. The census department then extrapolated from this group to those who were never found in followup. However, those who absolutely refused to be counted in the census, even in the followup, liklely contained an even higher proportion of Catholics (ie: dissident republicans and others who would refuse to have anything to do with a Britsh census). Of the 95% of people who returned the census forms 5% did not answer the religion question. The census department estimated their religion using criteria ( mainly knowledge of the Irish language) to estimate the religious affiliation of those who did not answer the question. However, this underestimated the Catholic percentage of that group since the nonresponders were mainly in unionist majority district councils where Catholics were less likely to have knowledge of the Irish language . There was another factor which resulted in an underestimate of the Catholic population. British soldiers, their dependents and foreign students studying in Northern Ireland were counted in the census. However, they are only temporary residents and more importantly they never vote ( ie: the voter registration rate in Aldergrove ward, site of an RAF base, is only 44%. If you remove all those born in Britain in the census,the registration rate rises to over 80%, similar to nearby wards). The school census is actually a more accurate census than the regular census and the Catholic population of Northern was actually 1% higher in 2001 than recorded in the general population census.
Which brings me to your analysis. The age groups 0 to 6 in the 2001 census are now those attending primary schools. There a few born after the census during 2001 or even 2002 who are also in primary schools but since there is little year to year change in the religious affilation figures you can compare the 0 to 6 age group in the 2001 census to the current primary school population. The Catholic percent in that age group was 49.2% in 2001 and in the None group it was 6.9%. The primary school census population now contains a Catholic percent of 50.5% with a None group of 8.4%. There is an excess of 1.5% in the None group compared to the 2001 census. This 1.5% would consist of those who did not answer the relgion question, those with a tenous attachment to their religion, and Catholics in State schools who do not reveal their religion due to fear of intimidation and harassment. I would estimate that approximately half of that 1.5% is Catholic which would give a Catholic population of 51.2% at the primary school level in the school census. This is 2.0% higher than the 49.2% recorede in the 2001 general census. A similar analysis of the secondary school students yields a 2.3% increase in the Catholic population. Obviously, the Catholic population is increasing significantly over time but why?
The fact that the school census is recording a Catholic population 0.75% higher than the general censu accounts for some of this difference There are only 2 other explanations . Either there has been a net excess emigration of Protestants compared to Catholics or there are more returning Catholic emigrants compared to Protestants. The 2nd explanation involves the growing EU national population in Northern Ireland. There were over 2,000 students in Northern Ireland schools on 2006 whose primary language was not English or Irish. This number is certainly higher in 2007. The Catholic percentage would be very high in this group. However, since this group would account for less than 2% of the total school population it would account for only approximately 0.5% of the 2.0% percent increase in the Catholic school population compared to the 2001 census. Thus, there does appear to be a differential emigration trend.
The Other Christian group is also interesting. While it probably consists mainly of Protestants who have left the traditional Protestant denominations, there are some in this group who are children of mixed Catholic-Protestant marriages or non practicing Catholics who still consider their identity as Christian though not Protestant. Many of these children attend integrated schools.
The 2011 census will provide a clearer picture of all these factors.
I recently commented on your Banbridge election blog under "anonymous".