So the results of Census 2021 in Northern Ireland have now been released. This coincided with some reflections on a call for papers focusing on the relationship between the protection of minority rights and conflict resolution and prevention. Here the experiences of Northern Ireland seem to have little to offer to the debate. Yes, both the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities 1995 and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages 1992 are mentioned in the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement of 1998 under the section entitled Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity, but there were only specific commitments made in relation to the Irish language (s. 4, Economic, Social and Cultural Issues). Meanwhile the Framework Convention played a prominent, and often controversial role, in prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful discussions over the content of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which I have discussed in previous work.
What is noticeable in recent years has been how little minority rights have featured in wider debates on culture, identity and language. This is most notable in the long-awaited Final Report of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition published 1 December 2021. Both the Framework Convention and the Charter are mentioned with key provisions highlighted (paras 3.16, 5.6-5.7, 5.36, and 8.8-8.10 on the former and paras 5.36, 6.4, 6.5, 8.1-8.15 on the latter). However, there is no further analysis or engagement with monitoring reports, apart from a double reiteration of the UK’s commitment under the New Decade, New Approach deal of 8 January 1920 to recognise ‘Ulster-Scots as a national minority’ under the Framework Convention ( paras 3.47 and 5.37).
Meanwhile the ‘two communities’ paradigm continues to dominate , and smaller and often less visible and vocal groups continue to be side-lined and marginalised. It is here that we see the right to self-identify, which is such an integral part of European minority rights law, come into its own. The Good Friday Agreement notably recognises ‘the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they so choose’ and to have the right to hold both British and Irish citizenship accepted by both governments (Constitutional Issues section 1.iv).
The impact the right to self-identify is having in the post-Brexit era is clearly reflected in the results of the 2021 Census with 46.64% holding UK passports only, 26.51% Ireland only, and 5.49% UK and Ireland only. Meanwhile 31.86% identified as British only, 29.13% as Irish only and 19.78% as N Irish only, and 0.62% as British and Irish only. The number identifying as British only has fallen from 38.89% in the 2011 Census, whilst the number identifying as Irish only has risen from 25.26%. Meanwhile the percentage of UK passport holders only has dropped from 57.18% in 2011, Irish passport holders only has risen from 18.94% and the number having both passports only has increased significantly from only 1.67% in 2011.
The main headline of course is the statistic of 45.7% reporting as being from a Catholic background, compared to 43.48% reporting as being from a Protestant or other Christian background in the 2021 Census. Given this shift, as well as other developments over the last few years, it is inevitable that ever-increasing attention will shift to the right to self-determination, and the requirement in the Belfast Agreement for both governments to ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland’ (Constitutional Issues, 1(ii)).
In the meantime debates continue over an Irish Language Act and protections for Ulster Scots, which remains a preoccupation also of the bodies tasked with monitoring implementation of obligations under both the Framework Convention and the Languages Charter. Whilst clearly falling within the remit of both treaties, the main focus of these as minority rights issues given the overlap and intersections with both religious and national identity raises wider questions about the role and purpose of minority rights. Here it is worth noting that only 3.91% declared that they speak, read, write and understand Irish in 2021 and the figure for Ulster Scots was 0.67%, both showing a reduction from the 2011 Census. Whilst clearly the rights of Irish and Ulster Scots speakers need to be protected, and the languages should be promoted given their role in our cultural, historic and linguistic heritage, what is most important going forward is that the voices and interests of the most marginalised and disenfranchised groups in Northern Ireland should not be excluded in the process. More on that another time….