Demographic Change and Conflict in Northern Ireland: Reconciling Qualitative and Quantitative Evidence

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Demographic Change and Conflict in Northern Ireland: Reconciling Qualitative and Quantitative Evidence

Eric Kaufmann
James Fearon and David Laitin (2003) famously argued that there is no connection between the ethnic fractionalisation of a state’s population and its likelihood of experiencing ethnic conflict. This has contributed towards a general view that ethnic demography is not integral to explaining ethnic violence. Furthermore, sophisticated attempts to probe the connection between ethnic shifts and conflict using large-N datasets have failed to reveal a convincing link. Thus Toft (2007), using Ellingsen's dataset for 1945-94, finds that in world-historical perspective, since 1945, ethno-demographic change does not predict civil war. Toft developed hypotheses from realist theories to explain why a growing minority and/or shrinking majority might set the conditions for conflict. But in tests, the results proved inconclusive.

These cross-national data-driven studies tell a story that is out of phase with qualitative evidence from case study and small-N comparative research. Donald Horowitz cites the ‘fear of extinction’ voiced by numerous ethnic group members in relation to the spectre of becoming minorities in ‘their’ own homelands due to differences of fertility and migration. (Horowitz 1985: 175-208) Slack and Doyon (2001) show how districts in Bosnia where Serb populations declined most against their Muslim counterparts during 1961-91 were associated with the highest levels of anti-Muslim ethnic violence. Likewise, a growing field of interest in African studies concerns the problem of ‘autochthony’, whereby ‘native’ groups wreak havoc on new settlers in response to the perception that migrants from more advanced or dense population regions are ‘swamping’ them. (i.e. Marshall-Fratani 2006) Recent violence in Kenya, Cote D’Ivoire, Uganda and even South Africa can be traced to this dynamic. (Green 2010) But we can also cite non-African cases such as the ‘indigenous’ coup in Fiji in 2000 or Assamese attacks on Bengali immigrants in India since the 1960s. (Wiener 1983)

There is considerable evidence that ethnic change tends to trigger an ethnonationalist response from a locally-dominant ethnic group which believes the congruence between itself and its sacred territory to be under threat. For Kaufmann (2004), indigenousness, the idea that this land is ‘our’ land and that ‘we’ are ontologically and culturally the rightful proprietors of it, is central to the concept of dominant ethnicity, which also underpins many established nation-states and thus plays a role in anti-immigrant sentiment. (Kaufmann 2004; Smith 1986) Dominant ethnicity can express itself not merely at state level (i.e. WASPs in USA, Persians in Iran), but regionally (French-Canadians in Quebec) or locally. Thus it is territorially-compact, indigenous ethnic groups that are implicated in violence rather than dispersed immigrant groups who lack a sense of ‘native’ attachment to ‘sacred’ territory.

Melander (1999) found that groups who make up at least 70 percent of their home region are more likely to mount a violent rebellion against the state than more dispersed groups. Toft (2003) reported similar findings, going further to show how geographically concentrated groups living in areas they consider their homeland were more likely to attempt to violently secede. In a recent unpublished paper, ‘Sons of the Soil, Immigrants and Civil War’, Fearon and Laitin take the argument further, noting that demographic incursions of settlers into territory that ethnic groups deem to be their homeland are responsible for 32 of the 101 ethnic civil wars (defined by a 1000-battle death threshold) recorded for 1945-2008. Moreover, a further 36 indigenous ethnic groups - defined as those who have inhabited their region prior to 1800 - were involved in ethno-communal rioting or ethno-communal warfare (less than 1000 battle deaths) since 1980.

So does demography matter for ethnic violence or not? This paper suggests that there is potential in both perspectives and methodologies. To begin with, we are more apt to spot a quantitative association between ethnic change and conflict in sub-state data. Furthermore, given the decennial nature of census data (which therefore cannot be sensitive to outbreaks of violence in a given year), we need to deploy models that seek links between ethnic change and conflict levels, rather than onsets - the measure used by Laitin and Fearon (2003). Furthermore, the processes we shall trace are often indirect - either mediated or multi-stage - rather than first order.
The 'Orange State': Unionist Demographic Hegemony in Northern Ireland

We shall begin with the observation that Northern Ireland was explicitly formed as a Protestant state after Unionist resistance convinced the British to partition the island in 1921 rather than maintain it as a unitary entity under Home Rule. Demography played an important part in Unionist calculations from the outset. Some Unionists sought to incorporate the full nine counties of Ulster into the new state. However, this 'greater' Unionist solution would add three Catholic-majority counties, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, to Northern Ireland, diluting the Protestant advantage. Though these counties contained significant minorities of Protestants (by all-Ireland standards) and Protestants in these three ‘left out’ counties were extremely active in Unionist causes such as Orangeism, the balance of opinion among northern Protestant leaders favoured a more compact 6-county 'Ulster' with a solid two-thirds Protestant majority. Their decision thus prevailed over the protests of ‘cut-off’ Unionists.

The expansion of the British welfare state attendant upon the election of Clement Attlee's Labour government in 1945 led to growing sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland as the Protestant government of Northern Ireland parcelled out the new social largesse in a biased manner. Though a part of Great Britain, Northern Ireland had secured distinct privileges under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, partly because of sympathy from Unionists in mainland Britain and partly because of the Ulster Unionists' threats of civil unrest. The terms of the Act permitted the Unionists to have their own assembly at Stormont, a form of self-rule not extended to Scotland or Wales until Devolution in the late 1990s. Based on a majoritarian electoral formula despite the divided, ethnic nature of the province's party system, the Stormont assembly returned the Protestant Official Unionist Party (later UUP) to office every year between Northern Ireland's founding in 1922 and the end of the Assembly in 1972. (Bew and Patterson et al. 2001)

Protestants’ domination of Stormont, and their control of local government through gerrymandering - even in Catholic majority cities like Derry - permitted them to direct the resources of the British Treasury toward Protestants. This was vital in an economy dependent on government to the tune of over 85 percent of GDP where most housing and good jobs were publically-provided. In housing, health care, education and government employment, Protestants disproportionately benefited while Catholics disproportionately emigrated. Work permits for Irish migrants from the south were directed toward southern Protestants and away from Catholics, whom the Unionists suspected as a fifth column bent on the 'peaceful penetration' of the North. (Patterson and Kaufmann 2007, ch., 1)

The demography of Northern Ireland is fascinating. Catholics entered the demographic transition 60 to 80 years after Protestants. Traditional Catholic teachings on birth control as well as rural poverty and lower levels of female education contributed to this difference. However, though they formed just 35 percent of Northern Ireland's population, Catholics made up 60 percent of its emigrants. The disproportionate losses among Catholics in the 15-40 age cohort reversed the gains that would otherwise have accrued to the Catholic community. Indeed, the 20-24 age cohort was 25 percent smaller than the 15-19 cohort in 1971. (Leuprecht 2010; Compton 1991)

Protestants acted on several levels to make life difficult for Catholics, which encouraged emigration. At the grassroots, Protestants tried to prevent Protestant land and houses being sold to Catholics. Protestants who did so faced sanction from their community. The quasi-Masonic Orange Order, a fraternity which enrolled a fifth of Protestant men over 18 in the province (rising to a half in rural areas of Border counties where Protestants are often a minority) developed a 'Land Fund' to purchase land for Protestants. It persists to this day.1 The scheme began in 1938 in Fermanagh - a border county with a nearly even mix of Catholics and Protestants - and was soon copied elsewhere.2

At the Order's Central Committee in 1959, a resolution from Portglenone district in County Antrim was tabled to offer a stick as well as a carrot to prospective Protestants seeking to sell land to the highest bidder: 'Any member of the Order who in future sells or in any manner whatsoever disposes of his farm house or other property to a RC [Catholic] should be expelled form the Order'.3 This attitude is reinforced by informal community sanctions running the gamut from 'friendly advice' to threats, as well as a system of 'gatekeeper' auctioneers, solicitors and estate agents who withdraw land from sale if a buyer of the correct faith is not found. (Murtagh 1997: 33, 48-50)

The Orange Order connected the grassroots to the levers of power. For politicians it was almost a sine qua non for election. Indeed, all but 11 of the 149 Official Unionist Party MLAs between 1922 and 1972 were Orangemen, as were all Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland. (Harbinson 1973) The Order and local Unionist Party branches - often the same people - acted as conveyor belts for local Protestant fears. Thus the North Armagh Unionist Party branch wrote to the party's headquarters in April 1950 'Protesting strongly against the action of our Ulster and Protestant government in permitting the appointment of a Roman Catholic to be in charge of the allocation of houses built in county Tyrone, Fermanagh, South Derry and a large part of the county of Armagh [areas with an even ethnic balance]....We feel that all our endeavours to increase the Unionist majority have been brought to nought by the action of this unacceptable person who has for instance allocated over 90 percent of houses in Keady [a South Armagh town with a Catholic majority of 79 percent in 1971] to RC Republicans. We demand their immediate withdrawal from their position of responsibility.' (Patterson and Kaufmann 2007: 50)

Northern Ireland's Changing Ethnic Demography
Unionist efforts seemed to bear demographic fruit for many decades. Figure 1 shows the Protestant share of the population in the six counties and two county boroughs (cities) of Northern Ireland between 1881 and 1971. Notice that Protestants retained their share of the population through most of the period despite a birth rate 50 percent lower than the corresponding Catholic rate. In the finely balanced rural border counties of Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh and Londonderry, Protestants managed to increase or maintain their strength until 1961. Only in the cities, especially Derry, did a Catholic influx change the composition of the population. After 1961, the Catholic share of the province's population began to rise as emigration tailed off - in part due to the expansion of the province's welfare state. At this point, Northern Ireland was still considerably more prosperous than the Republic.
Figure 1.

Source: Census of Ireland 1881-1911; Census of Northern Ireland 1926-714

Northern Ireland's growing Catholic population coincided with increasing pressure from the British government on the Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland government at Stormont to reduce discrimination in jobs, housing and voting. Already present under Macmillan's Tories, this moral suasion increased during the Labour administration of Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970. The new realities alarmed Protestants. As the Unionist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill - branded a traitor by many Unionists for his attempts to implement egalitarian reforms - put it in 1969: 'The basic fear of Protestants in Northern Ireland is that they will be outbred by the Roman Catholics. It is as simple as that.' (Gillespie and Jones 1995: 105) Catholics were increasingly staying put, and by 2001, they formed an estimated 47 percent of the population and a majority of schoolchildren - on course, therefore, to eventually becoming the majority. (Courbage 2003)

While demographic fear was the prevailing leitmotif in the Unionist community, a sense of optimism sprang up on the other side of the communal fence. Favourable demographic trends soon formed the linchpin of the emerging strategy of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Adams used the demographic argument to convince the IRA's Army Council to back his tactic of shifting from 'the armalite [i.e. armed struggle] to the ballot box'. After all, he reasoned, if Nationalists became the electoral majority, they could vote for a United Ireland. This is certainly possible under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which only requires 51 percent support across Northern Ireland. In April 2001, prior to the eagerly anticipated release of the 2001 Northern Ireland census figures, The Guardian wrote that Irish Republicans felt "a sense of destiny". In June 2008 in a speech at the London Irish Centre, Adams once again reaffirmed this logic: 'The economic and demographic dynamics in Ireland make Irish reunification a realistic objective within a reasonable time scale.' (Bean 1995; McEldowney et al. 2004; Socialist Campaign Group News 2008)

Demographic Shifts and Violence in Northern Ireland: in search of quantitative clues
Given the above, what can we say about the relationship between ethnic change and violence in Northern Ireland? The hypothesis that dominant ethnic groups react in 'sons of the soil' fashion to the growth of minorities might suggest that Unionists would kill in response to Catholic growth. But such an interpretation is too crude. The Unionist grassroots and their government were alarmed at Catholic growth, but were also constrained by a number of factors. First of all, most Unionists did not support violence, which they deemed to be part of the Republican/Catholic 'physical force tradition'. This was considered alien to the law-abiding Protestant tradition as exemplified by the almost entirely Protestant police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), not to mention the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) of the British Army and its local military auxiliary, the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR).5 RUC and UDR men were overrepresented in the Orange Order, whose leadership - and most members - deemed the Order a traditional, law-abiding organisation. Accordingly, it frowned on the activities of secular Protestant paramilitaries like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defense Association (UDA) which were responsible for virtually all Protestant-on-Catholic civilian deaths. This remained true even though there were local pockets of paramilitarism within the Order.6

Second, the British government controlled the purse strings in Northern Ireland. In an economy whose GDP depended overwhelmingly on government, this gave the generally nonsectarian British government important leverage over the activities of the Unionist administration at Stormont. Finally, while the Unionists viewed the six counties as 'theirs' by virtue of the deal they had struck to give up the southern 26 counties, they never challenged the claim that the Catholic population was native to Ulster, which arguably undercut the more typical, 'sons of the soil' ethno-nationalist claims deployed by, for example, Serbs in Kosovo, Sinhalese in Sri Lanka or Melanesian Fijians in Fiji.

The ‘Troubles’, or civil war, in Northern Ireland began in mid-1969 and largely died down after the first IRA ceasefire of 1994. Malcolm Sutton records 3526 conflict-related deaths during the period 1969-2001. Of these, 1521 were identified as Catholic and 1287 as Protestant. Among Protestants, close to 80 percent of deaths came at the hands of Republican groups, namely the provisional IRA (PIRA) or, to a lesser degree, the smaller INLA.7 Catholic fatalities came from a wider spectrum with under half from loyalist paramilitaries, a fifth from the British army and close to a third from Republicans (mainly PIRA) themselves - largely in the form of reprisal killings.8

Among the Republican groups, strategy was proactive, ideological and offensive in the sense that PIRA and INLA sought to attack symbols of the British state such as the army, RUC and UDR and those who cooperated with them. The struggle was cloaked in anticolonial Marxist ideology, and in the 1970s, Republicans spoke of an 'Algeria strategy' to push the British from Northern Ireland as the FLN had forced the French from Algeria. For Protestant paramilitaries, by contrast, violence was almost entirely reactive: a combination of community defence and a tit-for-tat response to Republican violence. Retribution and self-defence were also part of PIRA's raison d'etre, but less so, and the loss of an offensive vision sapped the movement's strength. In the words of Eamon Collins, an ex-PIRA man, by the 1980s, the 'IRA's struggle had become pointless: the only justification for our existence was to protect Catholic areas from loyalist death squads.' (Collins and McGovern 1999: 242)

The suspicion that population change played little part in the violence - especially once a cycle of retribution was underway - is borne out in the data. According to the 'sons of the soil' theory, Protestants would be expected to attack Catholics more viciously in areas where Protestants had experienced population decline. Changes to census boundaries do not allow us to calculate the rate of population change after 1971, but the violence crested during 1969-72, so we should be able to draw robust conclusions from the 1926-71 census data chronicled in figure 2. In figure 2, we clearly see that shifts in the Protestant share of the population at county level during 1926-71 (dotted line) bear absolutely no relationship to the numbers of Catholics killed during 1969-2005, whether this is measured in terms of the absolute number of Catholic fatalities from the conflict, total Catholics killed by Protestant paramilitaries or the rate of Catholic fatalities from paramilitaries per Catholic population.9

What jumps out instead is the demographic implosion of Protestantism in Derry City - which elicited no increase in Protestant killing, though the British army did conduct many operations there hence the spike in Derry's overall, but not Protestant-orchestrated, Catholic death count (see difference between thick and thin lines in Derry in figure 2). Moving to the eastern, more Protestant end of Northern Ireland, there is a very high level of Protestant-on-Catholic fatalities (and fatality rates) in Belfast, which is difficult to explain from the gradual growth of Catholicism in the city from 22.3 percent in 1926 to 31.4 percent in 1971.

Figure 2.

Source: Census of Northern Ireland; Sutton 1994; 2001; McKeown 2009

This analysis is borne out in the models in table 1 which compare McKeown's (2009) fatality figures from the 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland with 2001 census data by constituency. The unemployment rate and social class composition of a constituency proved to be insignificant in predicting Catholic deaths and death rates there, as did the absolute levels of population and the denominational composition of the Protestant population. Being a Belfast constituency, on the other hand, proved strongly significant when predicting Catholic deaths and death rates at the hands of paramilitaries. Belfast was the epicentre of Protestant paramilitary activity. It was the stronghold of a tradition of secular, working-class, independent Unionism, as represented by the paramilitaries and the Peter Robinson wing of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The Protestant death rate also predicted a higher Catholic death rate, intimating that a tit-for-tat dynamic was at work. For Catholics, a larger Catholic population reduced the chances of being killed by Protestant paramilitaries, but had no impact on the absolute number of Catholic fatalities.

Table 1. Correlates of Catholic Deaths and Death Rates at Protestant Hands

Catholic Deaths (para)

Catholic Death Rate (para)

Belfast (dummy)

76.083 **




Protestant Deaths



Proportion Catholic














*p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001.

Note: Model fit improves without constant in both cases. Other variables tested and found to be insignificant include: Protestant death rate, occupational classes, place of birth (in or out of county) education levels, religious denominations (including no religion), unemployment rate and total population.
This makes sense insofar as the denominator in the Catholic death rate is the size of the Catholic population and it is more difficult for paramilitaries to operate in heavily Catholic areas. It also resonates with qualitative evidence that many of those killed were 'caught on the wrong side' or resided in minority pockets or 'interface' areas (dividing lines) that experienced ethnic cleansing and the 'burning out' of minorities. We can go further and specify that the death rate for Catholics was 3 to 4 times higher in East and North Belfast than anywhere else. What are the main characteristics of these areas? The map in figure 3 shows that East Belfast is almost entirely Protestant, North Belfast has a slight Protestant majority but is heavily segregated, while West Belfast (home of the infamous Shankill-Falls divide) is majority Catholic and also highly segregated. All three are largely working-class with strong paramilitary youth cultures. South Belfast is the more middle-class, professional part of the city and clearly more residentially integrated.

Catholics were more vulnerable to Protestant paramilitaries in the East and North of the city. West Belfast's ethnic geography is more clean-cut, which meant more peace walls and military cordons which contained some of the violence. This also made it harder for paramilitaries to operate: they had to enter large swathes of hostile territory and surmount security barriers. North Belfast's ethnic geography is somewhat less compact, hence violence was more difficult to police and easier to perpetrate. All of this speaks to a more militarily-driven dynamic along the lines of the Fearon-Laitin (2003) thesis, whereby centres of paramilitary activity and security considerations - rather than mass attitudes or population changes - are associated with violence.

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