Demographic benefits have been real but nationalism must bring its own ‘theory of government’ to bear on the future

“Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”
— Heinz von Foerster

Everyone (I hope) has a teacher upon whom they look back fondly and with gratitude for the good influence their teaching had on the rest of their lives. I can think of three, my P1 teacher Miss Farrell, who lulled me into the idea school would be fun.

My O level Maths teacher Frank Kelly who taught me there’s never any such thing as a stupid question. He even persuaded me I could study Statistics for a few months before the cognitive dissonance kicked in and I refocused on more basic stuff.

The one who left the greatest mark was my P7 teacher Brian Greene, who treated us ten and eleven year olds like we had a brain and could think very well for ourselves. I have a vague memory of him posing us a question about a frog jumping across a table.

The question was as follows: if each time it jumps the frog in question makes only half the distance it did before**, how many leaps will it take before it gets to the other side of the table. It turns out it was a very useful exposure to logic at a young age.

Greene was teaching us to think for ourselves and not take everything presented to us at face value. Of course, the answer is obvious now, but the introduction of the idea of infinite attempts to reach the other side only served to befuddle our thinking.

You’d think it would be obvious, but in my 21 years on Slugger I’ve seen so many logical fallacies warp public thinking it’s pretty clear to me now that what we learned back in P7 was an invaluable insight as to why empirical observation matters.

The frog of course never makes it: his progress impeded by his ongoing determination to get there combined with a radical loss of ability to make the short fall between himself and his ultimate goal. His goal becomes his gaol (see what I did there?).

There are a lot smarter people than me narrating the public space in Northern Ireland, but I’m puzzled why so many clever folk think the current [sectarian? – Ed] pitch for a United Ireland is anything other than a metaphorical frog radically losing power.

I’m not suggesting this out of some enmity towards the idea of a united Ireland. As someone whose family originates from both sides of partition (and the language divide) it feels like a pretty natural state of affairs for me personally.

But democratically and demographically, the evidence points in the opposite direction. This is not just a problem for political nationalism (though clearly it is pretty deeply), but it is also problematic for backward looking political unionism.

I’ll let Simon Riley (better known as Mainland Ulsterman in these parts) who has an excellent piece of analysis in the BelTel today.. He cites the penetrating insight of one of the most prominent demographers in the UK, Paul Morland:

Morland does not dismiss the political importance of the demographic change that has already happened:

“If the Catholic share of the population had not grown to 45% or more, it [a united Ireland] would be further off the cards … The fact that Sinn Fein has now become the biggest party is psychologically significant. And it couldn’t have happened without the underlying demography.”

Debates about a united Ireland are happening “in the context of a significantly larger Catholic community than there was 50 years ago.”

But – and here’s the thing – the effect started waning quite some time ago: “The demographic wave has not been strong enough for Catholics to deliver a United Ireland. They’ll need more than that.”

Now this is something that’s been pretty obvious to me for most of the time that Slugger’s been going, but Morland’s framing is new. He explains why nationalists feel that there’s been change: and really there has been a lot, even from the 1980s.

We can see the change all around, from the peace itself to the prominence of GAA in sports coverage and reporting, but also the buying by Catholic society into older sports like Rugby and to a lesser extent Cricket or even Hockey as Ireland teams succeed.

The blunt edges of Catholic society during the Troubles doubled as safety rails not simply for reasons of communal security (though in working class areas of Belfast this was a huge consideration) but economic self help and cultural nourishment.

But as Simon explains, this schema is now part of what’s blocking nationalism’s trajectory. It also partly explains unionism’s dramatic loss of political power that all the fuss over the jarring arrangements over Brexit and sovereignty cannot obscure.

Here he is…

An approach that allows for both of those factors would give us a better “core size” of each of the local Catholic / Irish and Protestant / British communities. Here is my calculation.

For the NI Protestant / British community, take those NI-born people who tick Protestant and add any No Religion or Religion Not Stated people who identify as British. This comes to 42.8% of the population.

Doing the same exercise with “Catholic” and “Irish”, the NI-born Catholic / Irish community comes to 41% of the population. This will surprise many.

As it happens, it’s a similar result using the Census’s “community background” measure: the percentage who are Irish-born and of a Catholic community background on that definition also comes to around 41%. It has actually fallen slightly since 2011.

None of this is a particularly radical interpretation of the data. Nor a predictor of the future. What it does tell us is that there is no easy exit for nationalism from the United Kingdom just as it intimates it’s long past time for unionism to drop the paranoia.

Nationalism has grown lazy at the imagined prospect of the frog getting to the far side of the table without any particular effort on its part. However imperfect and unsatisfactorily partial, unionism at least has a “theory of government”.

The northern tradition of nationalism (as distinct from the constitutional Republicanism of the south) is mired in pessimism and alienation from the state which means it is still cannot see the institutions at Stormont as an opportunity to drive change.

And indeed, why would you if you believed demography was going to deliver that change for you? Only an idiot, you might say, would waste any effort on short term gains for the Northern Irish populace if birth rate differentials will do it all for you.

A more enlightened constitutional view (like that of Micheál Martin’s Shared Island Initiative) would view the prospect of the forced integration of a ‘failed northern state’ into the south with the degree of outright scepticism it rightly deserves.

So it follows that unity would not be the disaster so many unionists (and some nationalists) imagine. It just can’t happen under these circumstances. As the engine of demography, that has delivered so much in the past, runs out of gas, there is only drift.

Simon and Morland again…

“Of course,” says Morland, “demography is not the only thing that drives history, but an understanding of it creates a good background condition … There’s a lot going on, but I think the big thing is the underlying demography got Catholics a long way, but not far enough. And now what’s going to matter is identity, immigrant groups, all these things we’ve talked about.”

There has been demographic change. But the demographics on current trends are bringing neither an Irish Catholic majority nor, by extension, a united Ireland.

Time to feed the flagging efforts with more than the sugary tea needed to get over his shock when the frog* hears he can’t reach the other side of the table in an infinite number of leaps alone. Without a theory of government, nationalism will remain lost.

* Warning: Pathetic fallacy in play..

** See this explainer from Simon in the comments below:

Mick should have expressed it as the frog only making half the distance it is trying to leap each time. So the first leap is to half way (crucially). The second leap is to three quarters, the next to seven eighths etc.

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