Are you Northern Irish? Well if you come from the north of Ireland, it seems a reasonable claim to make. But the way the demographists have been going on since the latest release of census figures, you’d be pardoned for assuming it meant someone who votes unionist.
Why all the excitement over what people call themselves? Because it might be the log onto which unionism can attach itself, as the waters whirl and tumble around it, threatening drowning.
The demographic trend is unmistakeable: the gap between Protestant and Catholic numbers in our little statelet is shrinking at pace. If what happened over the past ten years were to happen again in the next ten years, Catholics here would constitute 46% of the population, Protestants 43%. And were a border poll then called, as it almost certainly would be, the state of Northern Ireland would cease to exist – assuming Catholics voted for a re-united Ireland. Yes, Virginia, I said “assuming”.
The argument that says they would is that they consistently vote for the SDLP and Sinn Féin – both united-Ireland parties. And that’s where the Northern Irish thing comes in. Demographists, Peter Robinson and others claim that Catholics in the north no longer want a united Ireland – that with their fellow-countrymen in the north, they’re forging a new identity which is neither British nor Irish. So growth in Catholic numbers represents no threat.
On the other hand, why call yourself ‘Northern Irish’ if you don’t think you’re Irish as well? Search me. People say funny things when they’re questioned on nationality. I remember in my former life scrutinising applications for a diploma course at the University of Ulster and being struck by the consistency with which some applicants from Catholic schools described themselves as ‘British’. At first I was quite excited, assuming this would mark a surge in the number of Catholics voting unionist. But the years past and the opposite happened – the number of Catholics voting republican increased. I would guess that the applicants assumed the person scrutinising their application would be unionist-inclined, and by declaring yourself British you gave yourself a slight edge, or at least no handicap. In short, they used a British label because in these circumstances they thought it might be to their advantage. In the privacy and anonymity of the polling booth, things were different.
There’s also the fact that people often define themselves in terms of what they’re not as much as what they are. It may be that the Northern Irish in the census returns were declaring their difference from the brown-envelope culture of the south of Ireland. Which again would be different from voting pro-union, either in elections or in referendums.
The truth is, we’ll never know – except, that is, a border poll is called. Then we could all give our views and get on with things, the constitutional question either answered or set aside for another seven years. Odd that there isn’t more clamour for that. But that’s Northern Irish/Irish from the north for you.