Robin Wilson: Who are the Northern Irish? The Census and Violence Over a Flag
Robin Wilson founded the Belfast-based think-tank Democratic Dialogue. He now works as an independent researcher.
Last week, Belfast City Council voted to flag the Union Jack only on designated days, sparking protest. What does this say about Northern Ireland today, and does it tally with the recent census results?
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. Among the protesters have been generals, including some loyalist paramilitary figures. The 2011 census results, just out, show a reduced gap between the proportion of Protestants and Catholic residents in Northern Ireland. In the country’s chronically mistrustful political culture, some may think this 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 has called it —now 48 to the Protestants, 45 to the Catholics —is the product of a statistical wheeze which is quite disreputable. In 1991, 12 per cent of respondents had not indicated a religious affiliation—an obvious response to Northern Ireland becoming over time more secular and normal. So the official statisticians decided to give them one anyway. They introduced a new category in 2001, that of 'background'. Unsurprisingly, those who are atheist, agnostic or just wish to treat religion as a private matter has now increased to comprise 17 per cent of the population. Yet still they are being asked what their ‘background’ is, as below...
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