Irish demographics do not lead inevitably to Irish unity

Irish demographics do not lead inevitably to Irish unity

by Esmond Birnie
article from Wednesday 9, August, 2017

THE HISTORY of the twentieth century dictatorships, whether of the extreme left or extreme right, proves that when anyone claims something is historically ‘inevitable’ we should be extremely cautious.

Irish economist David McWilliams usually comes across as a liberal, progressive chap. However, in his recent article for the Belfast Telegraph  “Demographics are shifting towards a united Ireland… we must have a plan” and his blog, where he provides the same from as an Irish Independent article, he does use some rather coercive language, notably:

“…demographics will deliver the North to the South and we will need to have a plan”.

So, according to Mr McWilliams we are on a population conveyor belt and the next stop is Irish unity.

His central fallacy is his assumption that any future Catholic majority would inevitably translate into a pro-united Ireland voting majority. This relies on an inherently sectarian perspective. Recent surveys of attitudes suggest this would not be the case (not even after Brexit).

Mr McWilliams auxiliary hypothesis is that the post-partition Northern Ireland economy has been such a basket case that it would be highly rational for all Northerners, whether unionist or nationalist, to opt for unity. In making that case he presents some very doubtful statistics. For example:


  • In the 2011 Population Census 4.5% of Northern Ireland’s population were born outside of either the UK or Republic of Ireland, not the 1% foreign-born figure he quotes.

I co-authored my first book and journal articles describing some of the challenges facing the Northern Ireland economy almost thirty years ago, so I don’t need to be persuaded that Northern Ireland has some major economic problems – though none that would persuade me that the ‘solution’ is a United Ireland.

Extreme exaggerations, however, diminish rational consideration of the issues at hand, and provide a negative contribution to sensible political and economic policy making.

This article by Dr Esmond Birnie first appeared on

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