Declassified files: Possibility of ‘turbulence’ if NI Catholic majority neared

Civil servants thought a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland was unlikely ' if it ever happened ' until well into the 21st century
Civil servants thought a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland was unlikely ' if it ever happened ' until well into the 21st century

A confidential 1992 internal government analysis of demographic change in Northern Ireland concluded that there was unlikely to be a majority for a united Ireland for at least 40 or 50 years, a declassified NIO file has revealed.

Although they thought that the days of a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland were far off, if indeed they would ever come, civil servants pondered what that would mean for a Province which when it was created could hardly have imagined such a possibility.

In a confidential July 1992 memo to senior colleagues, DA Hill in the NIO’s economic and social division said that there had long been an underlying assumption that at some point the Catholic population would become a majority, with “a concern that as the Catholic population approached being a majority that fact would cause political turbulence”.

He commissioned an analysis of when that moment was likely to arrive and disseminated it to senior colleagues. It found that until the early 1980s a Catholic voting majority was projected for 2036.

However, it found that “there has recently been a decline in the Catholic birth rate, whilst the Protestant birth rate has remained broadly stable. It therefore seems possible that there will in the future be a convergence between the Protestant and Catholic birth rates ... and that it is far from inevitable that there ever will be a Catholic majority”.

He concluded: “I think we can draw from this that if there is any vote in favour of a united Ireland within the next 40-50 years [2032-2042] it will be because a substantial part of the unionist vote has changed its views. Nor is it inevitable that there will be a Catholic majority or a majority for a united Ireland.”

A confidential memo from Pat Ransford in the NIO’s economic and social division said that he believed it was possible there could be a small Catholic majority early in the next century, and possibly a majority in favour of a united Ireland.

He noted the higher Catholic birth rate and wondered “how much the political/communal tensions in Northern Ireland might influence relative birthrates or whether other factors in the society such as different social mores explain why birth rates have dropped less sharply in the NI Catholic community than in the Republic and less in the NI Protestant community than in GB (I believe)”.

He also suggested that migration patterns may have changed and he said that “if measures which have been brought in to reduce discrimination in areas such as education and employment succeed one might expect the differential to reduce further”.

However, fellow NIO official DJR Hill said he believed “it will be a very long time before Catholics form a majority of the population in Northern Ireland, if indeed they ever do so; and that the Catholic community will always be larger than the strictly nationalist community (unless and until the present community divisions are healed and significant numbers of Protestants begin to favour Irish unity)”.