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Why the question of nationality is wrong one to ask

There is a very simple moral reason why the violent protests against the regulated flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall should be condemned. Because they are fascist.

Freedom of expression and association depend on respect for the democratic process, the rule of law and the human rights of others.

These universal norms have been defied by the campaign of intimidation in recent days.

But there is another, factual reason.

These are generals - including some actual paramilitary figures - fighting the last war, as the census results just out show.

In Northern Ireland's chronically mistrustful political culture, some may think the reduced gap between residents from a Protestant versus a Catholic background is an additional reason to be fearful. They should calm down.

First of all, this 'rugby score' tally (as the former Community Relations Council chief Duncan Morrow calls it) - now 48-45 - is the product of a statistical wheeze which is quite disreputable.

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In the 2001 census, because, in 1991, 12% of respondents had not indicated a religious affiliation - an obvious response to Northern Ireland becoming over time more secular and normal - the official statisticians decided to give them one anyway.

This was contrary to the spirit of the 1995 Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which stipulates that persons belonging to minority communities should not be discriminated against, whether they choose to be associated with that community or not.

The convention also mandates the states party to it, including the UK and Ireland, to promote 'intercultural dialogue'.

Unsurprisingly, those who are atheist, agnostic, or just wish to treat religion as a private matter now comprise 17% of the population.

Yet still they are being asked what their 'background' is for no good public-policy reason: the existing declarations required of job applicants have brought employment discrimination almost to vanishing point and, otherwise, public services should be allocated on patterns of social need, regardless of religious affiliation.

Some might argue that we need a tally of how many Protestants and Catholics there 'really' are, because of its implications for any future border poll, as enabled by the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

Yet the poll idea only originated in 1973, because the then Northern Ireland secretary, William Whitelaw, had been politically embarrassed by revelations of his private talks with IRA leaders - including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - the previous year and Whitelaw felt he needed to buy off hostility from the Ulster Defence Association.

The poll, massively boycotted by Catholics (and this atheist), was not rerun in 1983, or 1993, as envisaged, because of its polarising effect.

Yet the idea reappeared in the Belfast Agreement, with the condition that it would only be pursued if the secretary of state deemed a 'yes' to unification likely.

The whole point of the Agreement, however, was to transcend the old, either-or, British-Irish national identity choice, which seemed the only option in 1921, but makes little sense in today's cosmopolitan and globalised world. By allowing of an egalitarian form of devolution - albeit with structures ill-designed to foster genuine power-sharing - the Belfast Agreement defined a third constitutional option, which is far more popular than the polar alternatives.

In spite of the widely-recognised poor performance of the Stormont Executive, the 2010 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 58% said the best future for the region was devolved government, as against 15% for direct rule and 16% for Irish unification.

This makes the argument over a border poll - and, by extension, the flag at City Hall - meaningless. So could we have a Scottish or Welsh-style autonomous symbol, please?

There will always be only a minority in Northern Ireland who will define their identity as 'Northern Irish' (21%, according to the census), since we do not inhabit an independent state.

So rather than, as in 2011, asking individuals whether they are British/Irish/Northern Irish, far better in the 2021 census to ask a variant of the national identity question developed for multi-national Spain's complex tapestry by the academic Luis Moreno.

This asks survey respondents if they think themselves as Spanish only, more Spanish than 'X' (say, Catalan), equally Spanish and 'X', less Spanish than 'X', or only 'X'.

The adapted Moreno question was once asked (in 2008) in the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, with British and Irish exclusive identities, or combinations, defining the five potential answers.

It found that 58% (again) of respondents saw themselves as some mixture of British and Irish (more, less, or equal), rather than only one or the other.

And so 45% also answered 'neither' to the recurrent question as to whether they were 'unionist' (34%), or 'nationalist' (20%). The 'neither' two fingers to the old political system rose to two-thirds of the post-Troubles under-24s.

In 1985, 'loyalists' mobilised (equally fruitlessly) against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Seeing the slogan 'Ulster Says No' on a wall in Belfast, one smart graffiti writer added underneath a still-appropriate rejoinder - a reference to a contemporary pop song by Frankie Goes to Hollywood - ' ... but Frankie say relax'.

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