Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Census and Irish

As readers will no doubt be aware, the detailed results of the 2011 census have now been published. Much of the focus has been on the headline figures for community breakdown. It is very likely that this is the last census where the Protestant community will be larger than its Catholic counterpart. However, it is unlikely that the growth of the latter will be large enough to achieve a united Ireland by the time of the next census in 2021. Indeed, as many have pointed out, even a small cohort of Catholics voting for the Union in any border poll might well be enough to postpone that day for quite some time, perhaps even until the pattern of religious voting has to some extent broken down, in which case, Unionists will still have everything to play for — but only if they listen to Basil McCrea more than to Jim Allister.

What is clear, though, is that at the moment there is a very good correlation between Catholic community background (45%) and voting for Nationalist parties (over 40%). Taking the number of Catholics voting for the Alliance Party into account, it becomes clear that the Catholic vote for the two main Unionist parties is virtually nil, with any different drummers cancelled out by similarly free-thinking individuals on the Protestant side. Depending on the exact rules in place at the time, it is therefore eminently possible that Northern Ireland will see a Nationalist First Minister at some point. If the Nationalists are sensible, they will change the rules to allow rotation of the post of First Minister in exchange for movement on a language Act. However, the naming of a playground in Newry after a hunger-striker (ironically, while complaining about a Union Flag over City Hall in Belfast) does not bode well on that front.

The DCAL website also has a series of statistical documents about Irish and Ulster Scots.

For Irish, there has been continued growth. Today 11% of the population have a knowledge of the language, against 10% at the time of the 2001 census. The census captures data only for those aged over three, however, meaning that there in fact are slightly less than the 200,000 people with a knowledge of the language that one might expect if the 11% figure applied equally to everyone. In layman's terms, 11% means every ninth person in Northern Ireland (according to the Continuous Household Survey, which includes only those aged over 16, the figure is closer to one in every eight).

One of the more surprising facts about Irish is that people in the most deprived areas are more likely to know it than those in the least deprived ones. There must be few other areas of education where that holds true, and it is surely evidence of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, with extreme political pressures at work, a grammar-school system that works better for Catholics than for Protestants still in place, and, on that Catholic side, much of the talent still at the bottom. Owing to the fact that large-scale revival in the North is a relatively new phenomenon (one need only think of Séamus Mac Seáin's D'Imigh Sin agus Tháinig Seo), age is also a factor: 16% of those aged 44 or under know Irish, but only 10% of those aged 45 or over. This means that, like the Catholic community itself, numbers and percentages of Irish-speakers are likely to continue to grow. In time, the percentage of speakers, though perhaps not the quality, may become comparable with Wales — only 1% of the Northern Ireland population "can carry on a complicated conversation in Irish, talking about any subject".

The real problem for Irish, though, is that the numbers of people strongly in favour and strongly against the language are more or less equal, making progress difficult if it is treated as an either/or democratic issue rather than a human rights one, as many would prefer. This stands in marked contrast to Scotland, where attitudes to Gaelic are much more favourable, despite its revival coming from a lower base. One need hardly be an expert to work out that the Northern Ireland figures are a result of, and testament to, deep structural sectarianism in the polity.

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