Alban Maginness: Irish unification no longer a question of 'if' but 'how soon' - Unionists need to wake up
There could be Catholic majority in three years and they won't be voting for DUP or UUP, argues Alban Maginness
The recently published report on Northern Ireland by the independent academic Dr Paul Nolan has brought a sharp focus on the probable short-term shape of our politics. Dr Nolan has assembled in digestable form the pertinent statistics relating to demographics in this region. The last census, in 2011, put the Protestant population at 48% - just 3% more than the Catholic population at 45%.
Dr Nolan points out that more recent figures show that, among those of working age, 44% are Catholic and 40% are Protestant. He also pointed out that the difference is even more pronounced among schoolchildren, with there being 51% Catholic and 37% Protestant. By his calculation there will be a Catholic majority by 2021 - a mere three years away.
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As usual, unionist politicians are in denial about all of this. While nobody expects them to be happy about the certainty of a Catholic majority, one does expect them to give a realistic assessment of the likely prospects based on these independent and verifiable figures.
Unionist politicians must understand what is coming down the tracks and give leadership to their people, who will be disturbed and maybe even frightened (though, one suspects, not surprised) by these statistics.
To piously hope that Catholics will become unionists and vote DUP or UUP is ridiculous nonsense.
Given the history of this place, most Catholics - even those who are de facto unionists in their political leanings and attitudes - will never vote for a unionist party. The best that these people will do is vote for the Alliance Party.
The overwhelming majority of Catholics, whether they call themselves nationalists or not, currently vote Sinn Fein or SDLP. That position will not change in the near future.
Unionists should honestly and openly say that the days of a unionist majority are ending and they have to accommodate themselves to a new situation of being a political minority here, whether it be in the context of the UK or a united Ireland.
Historically, the raison d'etre for the Six Counties arrangement was to create and preserve a Protestant unionist majority.
On the insistence of James Craig, the unionist leader, only six out of the nine counties of Ulster were chosen to form the new political entity of Northern Ireland.
It was a painful but pragmatic decision by Craig to ensure the maintenance of unionist power and control in this part of Ireland. And, of course, it worked very well for them for the first 50 years.
However, it meant that thousands of Protestants and unionists were left in what was to become the new Irish Free State. Gradually, they integrated into the new political structures and, ultimately, identified themselves with the southern state.
It also meant that there was a permanently disgruntled and alienated Catholic minority in the north east corner of Ireland. As that disaffected minority grew there was no attempt by the unionist majority to address their concerns or befriend them to the unionist cause.
Catholics felt themselves to be an alienated minority, cut off from the new northern state. They continued to identify themselves as nationalists, unfairly and undemocratically removed from the new southern state and the rest of Ireland.
Their very sense of being Irish nationalists was increased, not diminished, by being within the new six-county state.
The real question arising out of Dr Nolan's report is what will this place look like politically when the unionist majority disappears and is replaced by a Catholic majority.
Basically, you will end up with a Catholic majority (ie Sinn Fein and SDLP) in the Assembly, where the First Minister will be a "designated" nationalist.
In such circumstances unionists may well be glad of the protective cushion that power-sharing within the Good Friday Agreement provides against majoritarianism.
But, given the difficult historical experience of nationalists in the north, it would be wise if nationalist politicians learned the lesson that alienating, ignoring or repressing a political minority is to invite disaster.
Whatever happens, the unionist political identity needs to be respected and accommodated. Not to do that would be unjust and counter-productive. Unionists will continue to be and feel unionist in whatever political context they find themselves.
Assuming that this change in the sectarian power balance does not lead to a reunification in the short-term, there will at least be a naturally warm and intensified working relationship with the Republic, leading to an informal unity of purpose on many things.
But, in the medium-term, a united Ireland is the likeliest option that the increasing nationalist electoral majority would tend to support.
In the final analysis arising from these figures, a united Ireland is not just a possibility, but a probability. It is not a question of maybe, but a question of how soon.