May 10, 2022

When I was researching my first book, which was about demography and ethnic conflict, I met with a well-known Sinn Féin politician in his Stormont office. I wanted to understand whether the elevated Catholic birth rate in Northern Ireland during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies — higher than among the Catholics of the South, despite the much easier availability of contraception — was a conscious effort on the part of the Nationalist minority to boost its numbers. 

He told me how the Unionist authorities had tried to counter that higher birth rate by encouraging Catholic emigration through discriminatory housing and employment policies. Generally, those authorities were successful: Catholics disproportionately left Ulster and thus their share of the population held stable, with higher arrivals of babies being offset by higher departures of working-age people looking for opportunities on the British mainland and the US. But sometimes these policies backfired.

“One friend of ours went to the housing office to ask for a bigger house,” my Sinn Féin interlocutor remembered. “They said: ‘Come back when you have eight children.’ So he did.”

Once civil rights improved the lot of Catholics in Northern Ireland, their disproportionate departure from the Province ended. But their birth rate remained significantly higher than that of Protestants for a few decades more, laying the foundations for a growing share of the population. 

A roughly 2:1 Protestant advantage was baked into the Partition — indeed, Cabinet papers make it clear that this was the basis on which the border between Northern Ireland and the Free State was drawn. But in the closing third of the 20th century, that Protestant advantage began to erode, and a rough parity of numbers between the two communities came into sight.

Numbers matter in ethnic conflict. As long ago as Biblical times, the Pharaoh of Egypt fretted about the number of Israelites in his realm. In an era of democracy, those who wield the greater number of boots on the ground also wield the greater number of crosses on ballot papers. One way or another, power tends to derive from numeric predominance.

But how to establish numeric predominance? Broadly, it can be undertaken through what experts have named “demographic engineering”that is, changing the demographic facts to suit one side or another in a conflict. This can be done the “hard” or “soft” route. Hard demographic engineering means causing people to be born, or to die, or to move. History is replete with examples of these practices,  and so is the contemporary world. Higher Catholic birth rates on the one hand, and the encouragement of higher Catholic emigration in Northern Ireland is just one example. In Ceausescu’s Romania, an ethno-nationalist regime with a merely superficially Communist-internationalist veneer, ethnic Romanians were deprived of access to contraception in order to boost their numbers, while ethnic Hungarians found it easier to get hold of family planning devices. Ethnic Romanians were not permitted to leave, while Jews and ethnic Germans were traded for hard currency. The result was a more homogeneously Romanian Romania.

Subtler ways to tilt the scales of ethnic composition exist. This is soft demographic engineering — like the drawing of the Irish border to exclude three traditionally Ulster but too-Catholic counties from the northern state. The population balance in Northern Ireland was arranged without moving or massacring anyone, and without encouraging one group to have larger families than the other. 

Elsewhere, the very borders of the United States were shaped by demographic considerations. After victory over Mexico in 1848, the US decided to annex the northern portion of the country — today’s California, New Mexico, Arizona and the rest of the south west — and not the rest of the country precisely because in this large part of Mexico, there were hardly any Mexicans. The administered territories were not admitted as full states until they had reliably “Anglo” majorities — New Mexico not until 1912.

If the boundaries of a map can be manipulated for demographic purposes, so can the boundaries of identity. At one stage the Turks tried to persuade the world that the people living in the east of the country were not Kurds but “Mountain Turks”. Austria-Hungary was keen to stress the Ukrainian identity, serving as a thorn in the side of the Russians. The Russians meanwhile, along with their Balkan allies, were busy trying to persuade Croats, once loyal to the Habsburgs, that they were really “South Slavs” (or Yugo-Slavs) who should throw their lot in with the Serbs, religious differences notwithstanding. The Tsarist authorities preferred that Ukrainians thought of themselves as “little Russians”, a theme Putin himself has echoed.

In Northern Ireland there has been little effort to persuade Nationalists that they are really British, or Unionists that they are really Irish, but there is a fair amount of this sentiment in both communities. Soft demographic engineering has occurred regardless. Undoubtedly conversion and assimilation on both sides is what explains Republican and Nationalist leaders with names like Wilson and Hume, and Loyalist terrorists with names like Murphy. 

However the two sides have played their demographic hands in the numbers game, there is no doubt that they are closely watching the results. Catholics have been making headway; although their fertility rate is now not much higher than that of Protestants, the historic gap is still delivering them a growing share of the population. Sinn Féin certainly has high hopes that, in Gerry Adams’s words. “demographic dynamics… make Irish reunification a realistic objective within a reasonable time scale”. Earlier this year, one commentator suggested demography as the leading reason why Irish unity was “inevitable”. But Adams and the inevitabilists may turn out to be disappointed.

The great Catholic advantage in fertility has decreased significantly. Recent censuses have shown a declining Catholic share of younger cohorts. And a great many Catholics who feel part of the Nationalist community and probably vote for Nationalist parties are quite content in the UK and — or at least until Brexit — would not have voted for unification in a border poll. 

There is evidence that the binary nature of Northern Irish society is breaking down. Despite the persistence of inner-city sectarian citadels, more people are ceasing to define themselves as members of one tribe or the other, either because they have lost the strong sense of identity with which they may have been brought up, or because they hail from outside the Province. All this plays to unionism with a small if not a large ‘U’, because few such people are eager for a change to the status quo. One prominent Unionist politician told me that he would love a few thousand Hong Kong Chinese to emigrate to Ulster for that very reason. Note how the rise of the Alliance party has meant that, at these elections, parties committed to Irish unity actually lost four seats.

Brexit did complicate Northern Irish politics, but even its effect is waning; one recent poll showed only 30% in favour of unification. There is no doubt that support for unity is much stronger among the young than the old. But just as with radical change in the socio-economic order, changes to the constitutional order are likely to get less appealing as people age, and the support of youth today does not necessarily translate into support for it among the middle-aged tomorrow. Scottish independence, like Brexit, may change the equation, but not necessarily decisively. More than twice as many Catholics as Protestants admit to having changed their minds on the issue of Irish unification.

Sinn Féin’s electoral triumph changes none of this. There is a long precedent of nationalist or separatist parties holding local power over a long time but failing to achieve their break-away ambitions and in some cases even abandoning them; examples include places as diverse as Scotland, Quebec and Tamil Nadu. 

There can be no doubt that the rise of the Catholic share of the population has assisted in the growth of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland and – alongside Unionist divisions – accounts for the party’s success in becoming the largest party in the Province. But demography is not always destiny. The IRA could not deliver Irish unity through the gun. Sinn Féin will be disappointed if they believe they can deliver it instead through the womb. 

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