No room for triumphalism over seismic shift in north

If history is really an early warning system, as has been suggested, reactions to the news that Catholics outnumber Protestants in the North for the first time in a century should be measured.

Sinn Féin’s John Finucane views the figures as harbingers of historic and irreversible change. If the transformation is truly to be a positive one, consent must be the key.

A reversion to a time when it was about “might is right”, when mere weight of numbers gave moral force to whatever a privileged majority wanted and the devil take the hindmost cannot be an option.

The census figures in the North have shattered the old green-and-orange prism. But let us also hope they are not used to grate against the running sore of sectarianism or to provoke a slide into polarizing triumphalism from any quarter.

For the record: 45.7pc of people in the North are Catholic; 43.5pc Protestant; 1.5pc are from other, non-Christian religions; and 9.3pc neither belong to nor were brought up in any religion.

A more diverse population is revealed with people sharing many identities and affiliations.

Thus the imperative to be more open and accommodating is stronger than ever.

Allegiances and interests have also undergone a transformation. Brexit seems to have been a primary driver of this.

For many, it seems to have elevated pragmatism over patriotism. This can be seen with the number of people holding an Irish passport rising from 375,800 in 2011 to 614,300 in 2021 – a 63.5pc increase.

The restoration of political institutions and the return of democratic government is the only way to protect all.

The most important lesson of so many conflict situations is how little we allow ourselves to learn.

Mindful of this, it is worth winding the clock back to an acrimonious debate in the Parliament of Northern Ireland in April 1934.

A row over the rights of the nationalist minority was in full flight. George Leeke of the Nationalist Party asked then prime minister James Craig: “What about your Protestant parliament?”

Craig’s reply ran as follows: “The Honorable Member must remember that in the south they boasted of a Catholic state. They still boast of southern Ireland being a Catholic state. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state.

“It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic state launched in the south with a Protestant state launched in the north and to see which gets on the better. I am doing my best to be ahead of the south.” Today it should be less about coming out “ahead” and more about coming through together.

The Good Friday Agreement is still the best way for all to navigate the future regardless of religion. As its champion John Hume said: “Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict.”

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