A new report from the Ulster University called Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: A Review has confirmed the widely shared analysis among Irish and British commentators that the UK-controlled region is approaching a demographic tipping point which will see its population move from a majority Protestant to a majority Catholic background in the next decade. While religious identity, even culturally so, is the crudest of indicators for political affiliation in the last remnant of Britain’s historical colony on the island of Ireland, there seems to be little doubt that an avowedly ethno-national British or unionist majority in the north-east of the country is a few years away from becoming a local minority. Crucially, however, that does not mean that the dominant pro-union electoral bloc will immediately lose its influence since that grouping also absorbs a significant number of voters from an otherwise explicitly nationalist background. Consequently in the very near future the main focus in the Six Counties will be on which way the voting “centre ground” moves on the big constitutional question: towards “the union” with Britain or towards reunification with the rest of Ireland. And whether this is driven by politics, economics or both (as can be seen in the cross-community opposition to Brexit).
In the meantime, in purely electoral terms the partition-state of “Northern Ireland” is now confined to the two most easterly counties of Ulster, clustering around the city of Belfast and its environs, with voting salients and enclaves to the west and south-west. The rest of the disputed region is broadly in the nationalist or theoretically “non-aligned” camp. Which has been evidenced in a string of recent elections, a few anomalous blips to one side. That trend seems likely to continue, squeezing the electoral territory of “British Ulster” into an ever-smaller collection of constituencies and districts.