Throughout the troubles the workplaces, by and large, remained areas where Catholic and Protestant could meet and mix. This has always provided a foundation for the development of working class unity in struggle. Most workplaces remain mixed but there are indications that, even here, the growing polarisation has had some impact. A recent and well publicised academic report by Peter Shirlow of the University of Ulster, records that only 5% of Catholics and 8% of Protestants work in areas that they would regard as dominated by the other community
Another recent report comparing attitudes among different age groups found that the least sectarian were the pensioners, those people who had been adults before the start of the troubles and remembered the greater integration that existed during the fifties and the sixties. That views are more polarised among young people is also borne out by facts revealed in Dr. Shirlow’s report. It records that 68% of 18-25 year olds have never had a meaningful conversation with someone of the other religion. 62% say they have been victims of either verbal or physical abuse at some time since the IRA ceasefire.
Dr Shirlow’s report is based on the yet unpublished findings of the 2001 census. Although the full census results have not yet appeared, the facts that have been leaked confirm that a significant demographic change has already taken place. Figures based on the preliminary findings of the census vary but all show an increase in the catholic population. Some put Catholics now at 45% of the total, with Protestants only a few percentage points higher. Others estimate that the Catholic figure may be slightly more than this and that Protestants may already be less than half the overall population.
Whatever the precise figure there is no doubt about the trend. There are currently 173,000 catholic children in schools, significantly more that the 146,000 Protestants. On this basis, the day when the Catholics are in a majority will come sooner rather than later. The trend is reinforced by the geographical compression of the areas of Protestant majority into a small part of the North East, with the territory of the river Bann and along the southern borders becoming increasingly Catholic.
These demographic changes will eat away relentlessly and inexorably at whatever arrangement, agreement or ‘solution’ the British and Irish governments and the sectarian politicians may enter into. They have already contributed to a growing feeling of insecurity among Protestants, matched by a greater confidence among nationalists, who sense that the basis of the Northern Ireland State is being irrevocably eroded.