By Liam Clarke
Belfast Telegraph
1 March 2012

Catholic middle classes have been the big winners from the peace process, but they are increasingly comfortable to stay within the union, a new report has concluded.

In a bold statement the author of The Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report has declared: “Statistically the future is Catholic, the future is female.”

The report, issued by the Community Relations Council, is the first major stock-taking of the Northern Ireland peace process 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed and will be seen as a warning for the future prospects of Protestant males.

Yesterday, copies of the 184-page report were given to every MLA at Stormont ahead of today’s official launch.

The report finds that 60% of entrants to higher education are Catholic and 60% are female. The workforce is also becoming increasingly female and Catholic.

It points out the highest achievers in education are Catholic girls who do not qualify for free school meals, more than 74% of them obtain two A-levels. By contrast, just 11% of poorer Protestant boys who qualify for free school meals achieve two A-levels.

The report sees the Catholic middle classes as the big winner from the peace process so far. Their income levels and educational qualifications are now marginally higher than their Protestant counterparts and their numbers look like rising to eventually create a Catholic majority.

Author Dr Paul Nolan said: “Under the age of 35, the majority population is already Catholic. Over the age of 35, the majority population continues to be Protestant but the direction is clear.”

However, he believes that increasing affluence has made middle-class Catholics more content with the status quo.

“They are doing better at school, they are getting better qualifications, they are the majority in the universities and the civil service and there is no sign that this will translate into votes for a united Ireland in a referendum” he said.

He quotes, and largely accepts, last year’s Life and Times Survey which showed 52% of Catholics respondents saying they would prefer to stay in the UK but hardly any prepared to vote for a unionist party.

“Sinn Fein challenged that figure, saying 27% of people voted for them, but you only have to look at Scotland where many more people vote for Alex Salmond, seeing him as a capable politician, than actually want full Scottish independence,” he said.

On present trends Northern Ireland will be characterised by broad support for remaining in the UK amongst both Catholics and Protestants.

However Catholics still continue to vote overwhelmingly for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, as a counterweight to unionism.

“The nature of the settlement works like a see-saw – big parties at either end produce balance,” said Dr Nolan. He is quick to point out that the future is not set in stone and that trends can change, but a direction has been established.

One table taps into various surveys to compare the number of people voting for nationalist parties, with people who considered themselves Irish and wanting a united Ireland.

“The nationalist vote, taking Sinn Fein and the SDLP together, is fairly steady,” he said.

“There was a convergence with people wanting a united Ireland about ten years ago, but now they have separated out. Feeling Irish and wanting a united Ireland both peaked in the Celtic tiger years but once the Irish banking crisis hit in people didn’t identify with Irish unity so strongly but they still continued to vote for the SDLP and Sinn Fein.”

He adds “the contradiction for Sinn Fein is that the more they succeed in terms of the equality agenda the less their followers want a united Ireland”. Each community, he argues, wants a party which will be a strong communal champion.

This continued tribal division, which is still reflected in segregated housing and schooling, carries the seeds of possible conflict in the future. The dissident republicans will continue to try to exploit communal division.

Youth unemployment, at 19%, is also identified as a threat which could lead to violence and provide recruits for paramilitaries if it is not addressed.

1 Middle-class Catholic women, the new elite?

“Statistically the future is Catholic, the future is female” is how Dr Nolan sums up the emerging trend.

Some 60% of entrants to higher education are Catholic and 60% are female and this |is showing through in the |professions. Overall the |workforce is becoming |increasing female (52.4% in 2010) and increasingly Catholic.

Women are narrowing the pay gap with men. It is currently 91.9% compared to 80% |previously. However, women actually earn more per hour than men, but take home pay is lower because more of them are in part time work.

One table shows that 74.2% of Catholic girls who are well enough off not to qualify for schools meals get 2 or more A levels. Educational achievement decreases across the gender, religious and class lines until it bottoms out with poorer |Protestant boys who don’t |qualify for free school meals.

Only 11% of this group pass two or more A levels.

2 Crime here is falling, unlike other post-conflict zones

The level of shootings and bombings fell by over a quarter in 2011 compared to 2010 and there was only one death that was attributed to terrorism, the murder of PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr.

Injuries also fell from 116 to 80 and the number of victims of paramilitary assaults was down from 94 to 73.

This is part of a 10-year trend — the number of security-related incidents is now the lowest since records began in 1969.

On the other hand, the police seized more firearms and explosives than 2010.

We also fare well on ordinary crime.

The risk of being a victim of crime here is 14.3% compared to 21.5% in England and Wales.

We are bucking the trend for post-conflict societies. In places like Kosovo, Guatemala and South Africa crime increased following a peace settlement.

Domestic violence also rose in these societies, but here the level is consistently lower than other UK regions.

3 No change to the tradition of voting along tribal lines

Religion still dominates voting behaviour and no significant new party has emerged since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

Political stability rests on equilibrium between the two tribal blocks — Dr Nolan compares it to two sides of a see-saw in rough balance. The DUP only managed to attract 2% of its transfers from Catholics, and Sinn Fein only got 2.2% of its transfers from Protestants.

Since 1998 the number of peace walls has increased from 22 to 48, or 88, depending on how they are counted. Displaying flags in the marching season has continued and still excites passions. Last year the flying of the Union flag near a Catholic church in Ballyclare led to violence between loyalists and the PSNI, who removed it.

Some 90% of social housing is still segregated and only 6.5% of children attend integrated schools.

4 Political institutions appear secure as consensus grows

We have agreed the rules of the political game.

All five main political parties are now prepared to work within an agreed political framework.

The main features are a power-sharing Assembly, an Irish dimension with cross-|border bodies and acceptance that Irish unity can only come about by consent.

Each of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland emphasises different aspects of the package but none of them are trying to dismantle the package altogether.

Consensus has improved since the 1998 referendum when 29% of the population voted against the Good Friday Agreement and Protestant opinion was only marginally in favour, with 57% voting Yes.

The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey shows that the existing arrangement is the preference of the majority of respondents, not just as a |temporary solution but as a long-term policy.

5 Dissidents and rogue loyalist hotheads remain a threat

Both dissident republicans and loyalists who have turned to crime look likely to continue to operate.

The dissidents have a far lower capacity than the IRA enjoyed at any point in their campaign but they have no political exit strategy. Their strategy is to show that the Agreement has not brought peace, to drive Catholics out of the police, to gain legitimacy as an unofficial ‘communal police force’ through punishment attacks, to exploit situations of tension like the marching season, to force a return of the British Army and eventually to bomb Britain.

The report notes that their efforts so far have “resulted in an outcome opposite to that intended: instead of disrupting the political accord, the violence has served to consolidate the consensus”.

The report fears the loyalist command structures are “loose and baggy” which may allow younger elements to assert themselves violently, as they did last June in east Belfast.

Analysis: Cappuccino culture could be the new unifying force

The Community |Relations Council’s |Monitoring report on the Peace Process fills the gap left by the International Monitoring reports once periodically issued on paramilitary violence.

The CRC report is a massive piece of work scoping our progress and mapping the possible pitfalls ahead and, between now and the 2014 elections, it will be issued annually.

This is one document that should not be left gathering dust on a shelf — it is a guide to future action warning us of dangers ahead and helping us, as a society, to make rational choices.

On present trends we are heading towards a system of benign apartheid where the two communities divide up the spoils between them without coming to blows and Catholics have an increasing influence. Dr Nolan compares it to a balanced see-saw, with large parties sitting at each end to provide balance. The dissidents are always there to upset the balance.

The border is no longer a burning issue; people have settled down for power sharing with an Irish dimension. However, police reform, a key factor in gaining Catholic support, has not stabilised. The proportion of Catholics in the PSNI (27.3%) is exactly half the proportion of Catholics in the prison population (55%) and they are being targeted by dissidents.

Criticisms of the Police Ombudsman’s office may undermine Catholic support for the PSNI further. This is something that needs to be watched.

Above all we need a strategy for creating shared spaces and breaking down sectarian division which has emerged as more significant than constitutional difference. Will the parties at Stormont be able to move beyond the role of tribal champions to one of transforming the sectarian basis of politics here? Only time will tell.

The report also identifies many positives. The cappuccino culture which has turned the once contested centres of Belfast and Derry into shared spaces could emerge as a harbinger of greater social cohesion.

Despite widespread criticism of police response times, crime and violence is actually falling. Both are well below the UK average and are dwarfed by the levels found in other post-conflict societies. Our unemployment levels are also below most of the UK. On most measures of social deprivation we are below average but not at the bottom of the heap either.

Reports like this can show us possible futures, nothing is inevitable. In the end it is up to us which society we choose to live in.

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