22 September 2022. There were no Kodak moments. No presidents, prime ministers, kings or queens make high-profile visits, but this was the day that recorded how everything in Northern Ireland changed, absolutely changed.
ome may try to discount or minimize the census results that there are now more Catholics than Protestants. They say it is just a communal ringleader. But since the formation of the state, numbers have been central to our politics.
The boundary was determined by census data from 1911 which showed the nine-county province of Ulster to be 56% Protestant and 44% Catholic. This was considered too thin a majority to retain so Northern Ireland was designed to include only six counties.
As Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal were abandoned, the Belfast Telegraph assured unionist readers who felt guilty that “it was better for two-thirds of the passengers to save themselves than all to drown”.
John Brewer, a professor at Queen’s University, has noted that more people were killed during the three months of violence in 1922 than in the two years preceding statehood.
“Virtually all 232 victims were Catholics, and 11,000 were left unemployed and 23,000 homeless as Protestants secured their access to socioeconomic resources. More than 4,500 Catholic-owned shops and businesses were burned, looted, and looted. or destroyed. £3 worth of property destroyed,” he wrote.
Despite the overwhelming numerical dominance of the Unionists, insecurity was always evident. Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, Lord Craigavon, said the Catholic population had to be “watched” because “they breed like bloody rabbits”.
Decades later this sentiment was echoed by the Rev Ian Paisley who said that minority communities “breed like rabbits and multiply like worms”.
No mainstream unionist leader today would voice such vile, sectarian sentiments. Yet the emotional reaction in the hearts of nationalists to the results of the census cannot be predicted.
This sentiment was perhaps best expressed by Colm Eastwood when he said that “those who faced decades of discrimination and who experienced the harshest end of this oppressive state” are “relieved today.” will be able to breathe”.
It is not just those who themselves were deprived of jobs, houses or votes who will feel this way, but their sons, daughters and grandchildren who dared to dream better and saved. The once subjugated community is now a self-reliant and resilient one.
The census figures will also have a psychological effect on unionists, whether they admit it or not. There is no hope of a reversal of the demographic reality in the coming decades. With the growing population, the number of Protestants is going to decrease further.
The DUP is talking about growing the Catholic community, and talking about the idea of the three tribes. While it is true that no community currently has a majority, Department for Education school enrollment figures for 2021/22 suggest that this will change.
Of the 350,000 school children, 50% are from a Catholic background, 31% are Protestant and 19% are from another religious background or none.
Of course, demography is not destiny. Not every Catholic is a nationalist. Demographic change does not mean constitutional change.
But if the status quo is to hold, unionism will have to be more generous and imaginative than ever – both in deed and word.
It must stop seeking to “own” Northern Ireland, and start working to make it a common place. Some wise heads know this, but many unionist leaders seem wedded to the old ways. If they want a place where they want to live they must change, and change fast. The state is not what it used to be – the numbers no longer add up.
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