In the last census, 48% of the population identified themselves as “Protestant”, compared to 45% who declared themselves to be “Catholic”. It has been predicted that self-identified Catholics may represent the largest plurality for the first time. Is it important? In an entity like the Six Counties, founded on a fundamentally sectarian premise, this is unfortunately the case.
For a century, the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” have been interchanged with “Unionist” and “Nationalist”, however ugly and unsatisfying that may be. This sectarian number is grossly simplistic and does not reflect the reality of a more complex picture.
But that’s what happens when you divide a country and say, “let’s put all the Catholics there and all the Protestants here” and hope for the best. Although there are many Protestant Republicans and probably even more Catholic Unionists, there has traditionally been a significant overlap between those who declare themselves Protestant and those who say they support the Union. Similarly, a large proportion of self-proclaimed Catholics say they favor Irish reunification.
If a “Catholic” plurality is revealed next week, it will thus feed the reflection of British Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. Under the NI Act 1998, which gave legal effect to the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Heaton-Harris must call a border ballot “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those who vote would express the wish that NI cease”. to be part of the United Kingdom and to be part of a united Ireland”.
Some have argued that this condition was met when pro-unity and constitutionally agnostic parties won considerably more seats than pro-union parties in the May election. More are likely to argue that it has been achieved when the census results are announced. This is a debate to be had. But the UK government must now set out the conditions it says must be met to meet its obligations under the 1998 peace settlement.
Citizens and international GFA guarantors should be made aware of the exact criteria London wants to meet before a ballot is called, so that we can all measure and test them for ourselves.