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A Catholic Northern Ireland?

By Joe Leary, Special to the BIR, special to the BIR, August 31, 2012

The school population in Northern Ireland, through University level, has been heavily Catholic for many years, so it is only a matter of time before there will be a Catholic majority in the six counties.

Northern Ireland as a culturally Catholic area for the first time in almost 500 years will present unusually difficult political problems that will need to be handled carefully by all sides.

Academics and trend experts can argue about when this dramatic shift will become reality, but very few doubt that it will occur within the next five to ten years.

The latest census of the six counties of he North was taken last year, and the results will be released within the next two months. The 2001 census placed the Protestant population at 53.1 percent and the Catholic population at 43.8 percent.

In 1922, when six counties were selected to become part of the United Kingdom, the Catholic population was between 25 percent and 30 percent. Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan, originally part of the Northern Ulster province and representing 43 percent of the land mass of the province, were not selected because of their high Catholic populations.

The Northern Ireland Department of Education figures for the 2010/2011 year showed 163,693 Catholics and 120,415 Protestants in Northern primary and secondary schools. There were also another 37,609 who classify themselves as “other Christian”, “non-Christian,” or no religion.

Queen’s University reports 8,710 Catholics and 6,740 Protestants. The larger institution, the University of Ulster, reports11,070 Catholics and 7,020 Protestants.

Irish officials have pointed out these disparities for some years now. A Catholic Northern Ireland does not necessarily mean a united Ireland, but it would greatly complicate British rule and have a profound impact on the attitudes and sense of belonging that Northern Protestants have about “their province.”

It will mean Catholic majorities in town councils and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which will be very difficult for many Protestants unless their rights are carefully respected. Government bodies like the troubled Parade Commission might have Catholic majorities, with resulting rulings protecting Catholic churches and Catholic neighborhoods. The 30 percent target for Catholics on the police force will in time rise to reflect the population percentages.

The impact of the shift can already be seen as the Catholic middle class expands and begins to influence the ownership of businesses. There is also an increase in wealthy Catholic families and evidence of a general Catholic presence throughout Northern Ireland’s active society.

There are already several signs that politicians are positioning themselves and their parties to prepare for the new situation. Sinn Fein in the North is headed by one of the shrewdest Catholic politicians in Irish history, Martin McGuinness, currently Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. A former member of the IRA, McGuiness has experienced the rise of Catholic influence and voting power, yet remains a gentleman in his dealings with his former enemies. He managed to become a friend of the firebrand Ian Paisley, works compatibly with opposition First Minister Peter Robinson, and recently, in a momentous change for Sinn Fein leadership, greeted and shook hands with Queen Elizabeth during her visit.

The leader of Sinn Fein, the famous Gerry Adams, has recognized the growing power of the Nationalist/Republican Northern voting block and decided to move to the Republic and run for office to join the Irish Parliament in Dublin. Though he remains leader of all of Sinn Fein, he is now devoting his energies and intellect to furthering Sinn Fein interests in the Republic.

It is sometimes not fully realized that all major political parties in the “South” have a United Ireland as a goal in their party platforms. The two Catholic parties in the North, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also have a United Ireland as a steadfast objective.
If a United Ireland is to become a reality, the rights and traditions of all the people must be respected and protected. This may require a new form of government, not a simple joining of North and South.

A single Ireland would be far stronger politically and economically than two contentious political units across a poorly defined border. Companies that now question locating in the North because of the political situation and high tax rates would become aware of the opportunities presented in a strong single country.

Instead of 4.1 million people in the South and 1.7 million people in the North, a new country with nearly 6 million of the brightest toughest people on earth would be a powerful force.

Imagine what they could do working together.

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