Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why the Northern Ireland demographic shift does matter

Ten years ago, the results of the Northern Ireland census were greeted with a not inconsiderable amount of unionist gloating. All the expectations had been that there would be evidence of a significant demographic shift towards Catholics, heralding the potential for the ultimate irony - a Catholic majority in a Frankenstein statelet created with the sole intent of entrenching Protestant dominance over as wide a geographical area as possible (including two counties that were Catholic-majority even in 1921). But those expectations were confounded, and the 2001 census showed the Protestant population maintaining a substantial numerical advantage.

The story this time, however, could hardly be more different. The Protestant population has shrunk 5% to a 48% share, with the Catholic population's share now just 3% behind at 45%. A similar "swing" in another ten years' time would comfortably tip the balance. And yet, curiously, the unionist reaction is that it "doesn't matter". Why? Because polling evidence supposedly shows that even a majority of Catholics want Northern Ireland to remain subject to London rule. Yet this begs the obvious question - why the gloating last time round if the demographics quite literally don't matter?

There are a couple of explanations. Firstly, it's not all about the constitution for unionists. In their heart of hearts, they must know that these figures make a Sinn Féin First Minister an all-but-inevitable outcome in the medium term (barring some kind of improbable political realignment). Under the power-sharing arrangements such a development shouldn't be regarded as important, because the First Minister and his deputy are equals in all but name - their legal powers are literally identical. But the reality is that the symbolism would be unbearable for a great many.

Perhaps more to the point, though, is that polling on constitutional preferences needs to be taken with an even larger dose of salt in Northern Ireland than in Scotland. There is an extraordinary level of community cohesion in votes cast for NI political parties, and it seems highly likely that much of that cohesion would transfer to a constitutional referendum, if one is ever held. The only scenario in which that might not be the case would be if the SDLP changed its constitutional stance. But the chances are that both Sinn Féin and the SDLP would campaign for a united Ireland, and that most of the nationalist vote would prove to be solidly behind them. It's called the nationalist vote for a good reason.

All these grounds for optimism make it all the more baffling that Sinn Féin were content to place the sole power to determine when or if a referendum should take place in the hands of...the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Surely if the consent principle so beloved of unionists (known to the rest of us as self-determination) is to mean anything, there has to be an automatic trigger by which the electorate can actually express its consent, without requiring permission from the quasi-colonial overlord?