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Ireland’s Rocky Road to Unity

Can Demographic Shifts Undo a Hundred Years of Separation?

Police and unionist protesters in Belfast, December 2013 Mariusz Smiejek / VISUM / Redux

In the wake of the Brexit crisis, the idea of a united Ireland has returned to the political agenda. Politicians in both parts of a divided country believe that Irish unity is a credible prospect over the coming years, whether they find that prospect welcome or deplorable. Sinn Féin, the main nationalist party in Northern Ireland, has called for a post-Brexit referendum on Irish unity, stressing the risk of economic disruption for a region that voted against Brexit by a wide margin. Leading unionist politicians have also warned that a border poll may become unavoidable, although they still hope to carry the day in the event of a vote.

But if the idea of Northern Ireland joining up with its southern neighbor now seems plausible, that stems from a different factor altogether—long-term demographic change, without which a vote in favor of Irish unity would be impossible to imagine. In 1920, when Northern Ireland was first established, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by an overwhelming margin: 65 to 35 per cent. In the last census, conducted in 2011, the gap had narrowed to just three percentage points: 48 to 45 percent. The Catholic population also has youth on its side, with Catholics outnumbering Protestants among those below the age of 35. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, it is reasonable to expect that sooner or later Northern Ireland will have a Catholic plurality, opening the door to reunification of the whole island.

THE LONG MARCH

In the Irish context, “Protestant” and “Catholic” are much like “Serb” and “Croat” in the Balkans: markers more of ethnonational allegiance than of religious belief. In general, members of the Catholic community identify with the Irish nation, their Protestant counterparts with the British. With national identity so closely linked to communal heritage, the pace of change tends to be gradual, if not glacial. It has taken decades to reach the point where a future referendum in favor of Irish unity seems remotely plausible.

Northern Ireland was designed to be impervious to demands for constitutional change.

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