One of the myths propagated by unionists is that the independence of the southern 26 counties led to an 'ethnic cleansing' of Protestants. It is certainly true that between the last 'British' census held in 1911 and the first 'Irish' census held in 1926 there was a significant drop in the number, and proportion, of Protestants in the 26 counties – but since this period included such events as the First World War, and the withdrawal of British military, administrative, customs and postal workers from the 26 counties it may be hard to separate those British-born returning to Britain from those Irish-born (if any) who might have felt compelled to flee. Nonetheless, the argument will continue to run, especially in the absence of any evidence.
It is enlightening, though, to look at the 50 year period between 1861 and 1911 – a period for which we have the statistics, and, more importantly, a period when British power was at its zenith. During this period the British colonisation of Ireland appeared to all extents and purposes to have been finally and fully achieved. The 1798 rebellion was a distant memory, and the disputes were more concerned with land reform and ensuring an equal place in the 'United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland' for Catholics. Irishmen were disproportionately represented in the British army that was carving out an empire upon which the sun never set. Attempts at a rising in 1848 had come to nothing, and although there were occasional attacks by the IRB, the movement was stronger amongst émigrés in America than in Ireland.
The period between the Famine and the First World War should have seen a flowering of Irish Protestantism. Free from any threats of violence, and watching their country becoming integrated with Britain, they should have had a confidence not seen before or since.
How, then, can we explain the reality? During this period of increasing prosperity and British power, the number of Protestants in many of the 26 counties tumbled. Why, with Queen Victoria on the throne, and the map coloured pink from Canada to New Zealand, were Protestants retreating from much of Ireland?
Monaghan, an Ulster county with a significant Protestant population in 1861 (26%) experienced a catastrophic decline in the numbers of the three main Protestant denominations during this heyday of the British Empire.
The number of members of the Church of Ireland, 17,721 in 1861 had declined to 8,725 only 50 years later – a drop of 50%. Presbyterian numbers dropped by 44%, from 15,149 to 8,512. Only the small Methodist population remained largely intact, dropping only 10% from 439 to 395.
Many other counties showed similar drops – in Roscommon between 1861 and 1911 the number of Church of Ireland members dropped by 67%, while in Monaghan's neighbouring county of Cavan the number of Methodists also tumbled by 40%. Even Protestant-rich Donegal saw drops of 40%, 42% and 28% respectively for members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church between 1861 and 1911.
By any reckoning these drops are dramatic. If they had happened in newly-independent Ireland there would have been cries of ethnic cleansing. But they didn't – they occurred under British rule, and at a time when that rule had never been stronger.
Is modern-day Northern Ireland experiencing the same thing? Protestant populations are aging and shrinking in many areas, especially west of the Bann. If this continues, areas like Fermanagh and Tyrone may face a future not dissimilar to their neighbour Monaghan, where Protestants now make up barely 8% of the population, compared with 26% in 1861. At present Protestants make up barely 30% of Tyrone's population.
Opponents of the demographic argument for Irish unification should look closely at what history can teach us. While no two contexts will be the same, it is interesting to compare Monaghan then with Tyrone now, and try to imagine Tyrone, and all of Northern Ireland, a generation or two down the line.