Now we all belong to a minority community

Roy Fisher
Roy Fisher

Northern Ireland has some hefty majorities.

Northern Ireland has some hefty majorities.

The 2011 census reported 98 per cent of citizens are white, 93 per cent are from a Christian background, 89 per cent were born in Northern Ireland and 82 per cent identify to currently belong to a Christian church.

However, to our continuing regret, it is the divide between these groups that we are best known for.

Pre-troubles there was a Protestant majority and even the late Rev Ian Paisley admitted the Catholic minority was then oppressed.

Now with the continuing shift in demography Catholics will soon amount to the larger religious grouping.

A notable difference is this will not be a majority; and secularism is likely to prevent a Catholic majority in the future.

The census produces two data outputs based on religion. The most widely used data is ‘religious background’ presenting two minority statistics, with a population of 45 per cent Catholic and 48 per cent Protestant.

The ‘religion’ output found citizens currently belonging to a Catholic church had risen to 40.8 per cent while those identifying as Protestant or other Christian (including Christian related) had fallen well below a majority to 41.6 per cent. Respondents stating no religion had grown to 10.1 per cent, and other religions to 0.8 per cent. The remaining 6.7 per cent of the population chose lawfully not to answer the religion questions.

My census responses see me included in the 48 per cent Protestant background statistic and the 10.1 per cent no religion one.

These are both minorities, but the smaller one more accurately represents me. My answer to the national identity question saw me in a smaller minority again; along with just 1 per cent of the population I ticked British, Irish and Northern Irish.

This minority of any is the one from which political assumptions could most accurately be made – but the tendency is to equate religious background to ‘the divide’ and corresponding views. It has been used to estimate opinions on issues like the constitution, flags and parades.

The census doesn’t ask whether people are nationalist or unionist but the NI Life and Times survey in 2014 found from a representative sample a result of 32 per cent unionist, 25 per cent nationalist and 40 per cent neither.

Breaking behavioral assumptions, when asked, 69 per cent of Protestants responded Unionist and just 54 per cent of Catholics responded nationalist.

This suggests Northern Ireland should at least be considered as three communities; instead we hear of unionist or nationalist areas, protestant or catholic streets, from some quarters the ‘PUL’ (Protestant Unionist Loyalist) or the ‘CNR’ (Catholic Nationalist Republican) communities.

I suspect it helps embed a basic tribal philosophy - whichever tribe is biggest has claim to the land; I hold this partially responsible for sectarian mindsets and attacks on ethnic minorities.

The religion statistics aren’t as simple as they may appear either, as they incorporate minority groups and denominations.

When we hear of Catholics it includes a majority of NI migrants, for instance almost all Polish people living here will either have, or be assumed to have, a Catholic background. When we hear of Protestants it includes over 70 other Christian and Christian related denominations.

One of these churches is the migrant led ‘The Church of God’, which also attracts local Protestants and Catholics to its services. This grouping also includes amongst others those who told census they were ‘mixed Protestant/Catholic’, Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness.

We are all part of several minorities, and if we want a “shared future” it needs to include us all. Condemning each sectarian action, or racist and homophobic attacks without looking more widely for the causes of sectarianism and hate crime will not solve the problem.