DERRY JOURNAL Editorial: Census results will likely boost border poll push

The 2021 Census results on national identity, language, ethnicity and religion are out next week and will make for interesting reading.

The Census results are likely to spark renewed calls for a poll on the removal of the border.
The Census results are likely to spark renewed calls for a poll on the removal of the border.

At the last Census 48% of the population self-identified as ‘Protestant’, as compared with 45% who said they were ‘Catholic’. It has been predicted self-identifying Catholics could represent the largest plurality for the first time. Does this matter? In an entity like the Six Counties, founded on a fundamentally sectarian premise, it does unfortunately.

For a century the terms ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ have been interchangeable with ‘Unionist’ and ‘Nationalist’, as ugly and unsatisfactory as that is. This sectarian headcount is crudely reductionist and does not reflect the reality of a more complex picture.

It is, nonetheless, what happens when you partition a country and say ‘let’s put all the Catholics down there and all the Protestants up here’ and hope for the best. Though there are many Protestant Republicans and probably even more Catholic Unionists, there has traditionally been a sizeable overlap of many who declare themselves to be Protestant with those who say they support the Union. Equally, a large proportion of self-declared Catholics say they support Irish reunification.

If a ‘Catholic’ plurality is revealed next week it will thus provide food for thought for the British Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. Under the NI Act 1998, which gave legal effect to the Good Friday Agreement, Mr. Heaton-Harris must call a border poll ‘if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that NI should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland’.

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Some argued this condition was met when pro-Unity and constitutionally agnostic parties won considerably more seats than pro-Union parties in the May elections. More are likely to argue it has been met when the Census results are announced. That’s a debate to be had. But the British Government needs now to outline what conditions it thinks have to be met for it to fulfil its obligations under the 1998 peace settlement.

Citizens and the GFA’s international guarantors should be furnished with the exact criteria London wants satisfied before a poll is called, so that we can all measure and test them for ourselves.