Planning for Constitutional Change
The recent census figures for the North attracted significant attention and analysis. It is remarkable that a century after partition, and the creation of the sectarian gerrymandered northern state that the population demographics have shifted so dramatically.
While many people today are reluctant to equate religion with political affiliation and national identity it is nonetheless a fact that the northern state was constructed on that basis. Two thirds of the population was Protestant and unionist. One third was Catholic and nationalist. In the years following partition the Unionist regime at Stormont set about entrenching its domination by creating an apartheid state in which Catholics/nationalists were discriminated against in employment and housing and tens of thousands were denied the vote in local government elections.
When the census figures where published ten years ago in December 2012 the unravelling of the sectarian headcount that was the basis for the northern state was already visible. When the question of identity was asked 40% of citizens registered as Britishonly. Another 8% identified as British and northern Irish. That meant that 48% of citizens in the North had some form of British identity. A far cry from the 66% of 1920.
Those who acknowledged in 2011 that they were Irish-only stood at 25% and the figure for those self-identifying as northern Irishonly was 21%. That was 46% of citizens identifying as Irish and not British. Ten years later and the percentage identifying as British-only has dropped significantly to 32% while those who registered as British and northern Irish is unchanged at 8%. That means that approximately 40% of citizens now identify as British.
The comparison for those identifying as Irish-only shows a jump of 4% to 29%. Those who registered as northern Irish-only has remained unchanged at approximately 20%. In addition another 2% identified as Irish and northern Irish only. That brings the total identifying as Irish to 50.67%.
In addition, in the last six elections in the North political unionism has failed to secure an electoral majority. In every electoral contest since 2017 the combined unionist vote was less than a majority of votes cast. Put simply, the unionist electoral majority is gone.
In the Assembly election Sinn Féin secured the largest number of first preference votes and the largest number of seats - a first for a non unionist party. Michelle O’Neill is now the First Minister Designate. Partition was supposed to make this impossible. Partition sucks. On all counts.
None of this means that winning the unity referendum provided for in the Good Friday Agreement is a dead cert or that Irish Unity is inevitable. What it does mean is that there are more and more citizens who want constitutional change. But it must be planned. For united Irelanders this presents an enormous opportunity and a huge challenge.
The Ireland’s Future event in Dublin at the beginning of this month and the Belfast People’s Assembly on 12th October, along with an Ireland’s Future event in Belfast on 23rd November and a Donegal People’s Assembly on the 24th November are all evidence of the growing determination of people to develop a strategy and encourage the necessary conversation around planning for future constitutional change.