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Tuesday, 2 July, 2002, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Political numbers game
Crowds gather in Belfast city centre for a demonstration
Northern Ireland's demographic gap may be narrowing
Kevin Connolly

There is nowhere else in the United Kingdom, maybe nowhere else on earth, where people talk about winning or losing a census.

But Northern Ireland is different. From the moment it was created in the 1920s, its political life has been governed by the simple fact that Protestants outnumber Catholics - its original borders were after all designed to make sure of it.

The demographic gap may be narrowing
There have been calls to hold a border poll
The precise size of that gap is not a subject of daily discussion in Northern Ireland but in the end you can argue it is the only statistic that really matters.

It is easy to become obsessed with the manoeuvrings within unionism and nationalism that hold the province's fragile power-sharing arrangements together.

But they would immediately cease to have any meaning if a majority voted to scrap the border in a referendum.

A referendum conducted in 1973 on exactly this issue produced a meaningless result because only unionists voted - next time around things will be very different.

Nationalists and republicans are now fully engaged in the province's political life and have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to get their vote out.

There is a perception amongst many Catholics that a united Ireland is inevitable

Professor Paul Bew
Curiously though, the most recent suggestion that it might be time to hold a border poll came from the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

It may be that he calculates that the sooner it is held, the likelier it is to go his way.

There is evidence that an overwhelming majority of Protestants - maybe as many as 99% - would vote to preserve the union. Clearly a large number of Catholics would vote to end it.

People's poll

So the closer the two communities come to parity, the more the result will be determined by the number of Catholics who vote "United Kingdom" instead of "United Ireland".

Professor Paul Bew, a historian at Queen's University, Belfast, who's close to David Trimble, says that crucial figure too is changing.

"There is a Catholic unionism which exists. But it's falling. Most surveys placed it at 30% five years ago, it's now 18%.

"The economic arguments against unification are not as strong as they once were and there is a perception amongst many Catholics that a united Ireland is inevitable."

There are different interpretations about exactly what the provisions for a referendum in the Belfast Agreement really mean.

In practice, it's up to the Northern Ireland secretary to determine whether or not the political conditions are right - and the assumption has always been that would mean circumstances where a "yes" vote to a united Ireland seemed likely.

You're looking at a worst-case scenario from a Unionist point of view

David Burnside
Once a poll has been held, there can't be another for seven years, a figure which suggests that within 20 years or so, there could have been three border polls, with the demographic gap narrowing all the time.

Republicans have already said they believe it's possible that Ireland could be unified - or re-unified - by the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

The Sinn Fein chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, says the sooner talks begin about what shape such a new Ireland will take, the better.

"We need to engage with the unionist community on the basis of what kind of united Ireland we can all live in," he explains.

"I do believe we can move away from discussion on the basis of sectarian opinions."

Chaos warning

That's easy for republicans to say of course, because they believe they're working with the grain of history, but from the unionist perspective things look rather different.

The Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim, David Burnside, says he believes a vote now would go his party's way and warns a vote for a United Ireland could mean chaos.

"You're looking at a worst-case scenario from a unionist point of view," he explained.

"I don't think the vote would go against the union but if it did, the uncertainty and insecurity within unionism would frighten the hell out of the Irish Republic."

No-one really knows what the census figures due to be published later this year will say, but they will be subjected to a degree of scrutiny that would seem faintly ludicrous anywhere else.

At the back of everyone's mind perhaps, was always the thought that politics in Northern Ireland was always going to boil down to a crude sectarian head count.

It's just starting to seem that way a little sooner than anyone expected.

See also:

12 Feb 02 | N Ireland
09 Mar 02 | N Ireland
29 Apr 01 | N Ireland
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