SINN Fein’s campaign for a border poll may be gathering steam, but latest figures suggest that in South Tyrone their biggest obstacle will not be Unionist defiance but Catholic indifference.
More than one in five local people now see themselves as Northern Irish only rather than British or Irish, according to the latest census data.
The information, broken down by each electoral ward, provides a unique insight into local people’s multi-layered identities.
Catholics are now in the clear majority at 53.08% of the South Tyrone and Fermanagh’s population, the largest proportion in the ward’s history, ahead of Protestants at 35.49%.
However, turn to the national identity findings and you find that in South Tyrone and Fermanagh, 32.09% thought of themselves as British only, ahead of 31.47% who described themselves as Irish, whilst a substantial 22.57% of local residents thought of themselves as Northern Irish.
In fact the local electoral ward has one of the highest proportions of people in Northern Ireland who describe themselves as Northern Irish only.
The figures challenge conventional wisdom that national identity and religion are directly linked. While more than half of the local population see themselves as Catholic, less than one in three of the population regard themselves as Irish.
People who opt for the middle ground in terms of national identity now hold the balance of power in the local district, just as Alliance hold the balance of power in Belfast City Council.
The DUP say the local census findings on identity show the clear majority of South Tyrone people back the constitutional status quo, and that a border poll would reveal that a substantial majority of Catholics would want to stay within the United Kingdom.
DUP MLA Maurice Morrow said: “The census figures from South Tyrone in many ways mirror the result for Northern Ireland as a whole. Whilst the single biggest group are those who identify as British there is a sizeable and growing number of people who are proud of their Northern Ireland identity.
“It is very clear that these are people who come from all religious backgrounds and none, so the lazy sectarian assumption that national identity can be assumed from someone’s religious beliefs can be laid to rest forever.
“People want to see politicians and political parties getting on with making Northern Ireland work and not obsessing about constitutional change or a border poll.
“We have a job to do in building a better future for our community instead of focusing on pipe-dreams of a united Ireland. That is a vision which increasingly is shared by people from both the Protestant and Catholic community.”
Continued on page 2
However, Sinn Féin MLA Bronwyn McGahan has said that while many interpretations can be put on the latest census figures one thing that cannot be denied is that “the Nationalist population is rising while the Unionist population is in serious decline”.
Ms. McGahan said: “While the introduction of the Northern Irish designation has added a degree of uncertainty of national identity the fact remains that the Nationalist community is on the increase.
“A large proportion of the Nationalist electorate in the constituency vote for Sinn Féin, a pro-united Ireland party, contradicting those who claim large swathes of nationalists want to remain within the United Kingdom.
“While Arlene Foster may attempt to create a comfort blanket by believing that all those who designated themselves as Northern Irish would vote to remain in the United Kingdom there is no concrete proof that this is the case.
“Sinn Féin recently launched a campaign to hold a border poll and this poll would definitively state where peoples national identities lie. In fact I was encouraged by Arlene Foster’s initial response in that she would welcome such a poll.
“A border poll is contained within the remit of the Good Friday Agreement and the Sinn Féin campaign to have a poll called within the life of the next Assembly will continue.”