Forget a united Ireland by teatime. The North now has three identities –


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John Downing
The idea of a protestant six-county chunk of Ulster is certainly obsolete – but so too is the 1916 leaders’ vision of this island.
The four provinces of Ireland

A century after its creation as “a protestant state for a protestant people” the six counties of Northern Ireland now have a majority from what was always the smaller catholic community.
United Ireland by next Tuesday after tea anyone?
Well, it’s not entirely that simple. Let’s drill a little beyond the headline figures.
Long awaited census figures published today tell us the North’s society is evolving in a multitude of complex ways. The community from the unionist tradition now being outnumbered does not mean a majority will suddenly look to Dublin rather than London in their daily lives.
That London-or-Dublin choice was one of the cornerstone assumptions of existence since the formal creation of Northern Ireland in 1921. When the North became a political reality it was overwhelmingly protestant/unionist with only one third of the population coming from the catholic/nationalist community.
Census figures now show that Catholics (at almost 46pc) outnumber Protestants (at almost 44pc) within the Northern Ireland population for the first time since the partition of the island of Ireland.
This is a radical and fundamental change in the North which was dogged by decades of sporadic strife and killing, and dominated by 30-plus years of outright war which cost more than 3,600 lives.
The “bunny theory” – which would see the minority nationalist/catholic community essentially out-breed their protestant/unionist neighbours over decades – has long been expounded. Now it has become a reality and it poses real challenges for the already embattled political leaders of the unionist community.
These census figures now tell us the North essentially now has three identities: 32pc of people say they are British and 29pc identify as Irish. But 20pc say they are Northern Irish.
This and other figures strongly suggest a decoupling of the old and dreary certainties involving a close fit between unionist and protestant and nationalist and catholic. That is a positive move in a place in which change was always too slow and uplifting news always too scarce.
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Central to Sinn Féin's policy priorities is the creation of an all-island united Ireland. In May of this year party president, Mary Lou McDonald, told Sky News this would become a reality within a decade, by 2032. The party has a chunk of political power in Belfast and may well be set to head the next government in Dublin.
That dateline is wildly optimistic and based entirely on long-held nationalist aspirations. The number of issues from health to education, to cost of living, remain unaddressed and almost limitless.
The prospect of a rapid united Ireland remains hugely problematic with far more questions than answers. But this census taken in 2021 tells us that change of some kind is in the air.
The idea of a protestant six-county chunk of Ulster is certainly obsolete. But so too is the idea of an island of Ireland emerging as a late completion of the 1916 rising leaders’ aspirations.
Talk of a united Ireland must now focus upon pragmatism. The question must be: which political structure will benefit all the Irish people in their daily lives?

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