Broadcasting Committee

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'Diversity in the New Ireland- Understanding the Census 2002' - Dr Andrew Finlay

Broadcasting Committee

Added on 15/10/2004

‘Religion, Cultural Diversity an Pluralism in the ‘New’ Ireland’
Diversity and Religion in Public Service Broadcasting, a Seminar Orgnised by the Church of Ireland Broadcasting Committee, Dublin

Dr Andrew Finlay

1 Introduction
Thanks to Alan McCormack for inviting me to participate in this seminar.

The brief he gave me was to set the context for your discussion today, particularly in relation to the changing religious and cultural composition of the population in Ireland as revealed by the censuses carried out, in Northern Ireland in 2001 and in the Republic in 2002.

I will start with that, but I’ve interpreted my brief a little more broadly to include the institutional and intellectual context, by which I mean pluralism in Ireland. My reasons for including the institutional context is threefold. Firstly, I suspect that many of you are familiar with the socio-demographics. Certainly, I was very impressed by the reports published on the Irish Council of Churches website, particularly those dealing with immigrant churches. Secondly, because census statistics can be very dry and I wanted to spice it up a bit in the hope of fostering debate. Thirdly, and most importantly because in the aftermath of the recent citizenship referendum, it is very important that we consider the disjuncture in official thinking between good intentions and the actual response to increasing cultural diversity in Ireland. Much of what I have to say in this regard is culled from a book that I have recently edited[1].

Speaking about what being Irish meant to him in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), Bertie Ahern described the challenge facing Ireland as being that of becoming ‘not just a pluralist society but a multicultural one". He was optimistic that the Irish would meet that challenge. Our best qualities are ‘natural ability, tolerance, friendliness and sociability and an instinctive egalitarianism and solidarity’[2]. A few years later his government was introducing highly discriminatory policies on Irish citizenship.

So, in addition to describing religious and cultural diversity in Ireland, I want to talk about some of the institutional and intellectual reasons why we cannot get to grips with it.

Let me start with the censuses.

2. Sketch of the census categories
I will have to talk about diversity in the two jurisdictions separately as the respective censuses ask different questions and enumerate different categories. The census in the Republic of Ireland did not require respondents to specify their ethnicity other than in the case of Travellers, but it did require them to specify religious denomination, nationality and birth place. The Irish Government had piloted an ethnicity question in 1999. The question specified only three categories: Irish, Irish Traveller, British, and other. The pilot revealed the inadequacy of this list; perhaps reflecting how fast things have changed. In the revised list, the number of ethnic categories was increased from three to five - white, Irish Traveller, Black, Chinese, mixed ethnic group (describe), and any other ethnic group (describe). The Government rejected this revised list[3].

I am not privy as to why the Irish Government balked, but in any case, the Census in Northern Ireland is a little less squeamish. It required respondents to designate themselves as White, Mixed, Asian, Black, Chinese or other ethnic group. Interestingly, it also required respondents to designate not only their religion but also their ‘Community background (Religion or Religion brought up in)’.

The reason I mention all this is not simply to explain why it is impossible to aggregate figures for Ireland as a whole, but also to make the point that Census categories are not natural categories, they are the categories that Governments decide are going to be useful to them in managing their populations, and as such they are contested.

I will return to some of these issues later, but first let me say something about the results from the censuses in the two parts of Ireland and the way they were reported.

2.1 Northern Ireland
Censuses in Northern Ireland have become a sectarian headcount. After the 1991 census there was much debate about the rise in the Catholic population and exaggerated talk among both Unionists and Nationalists as to its political significance. The issue that dominated the headlines after the 2001 census, was that while the numbers of Catholics had increased it was not by as much as Sinn Fein and nationalist commentators had predicted or hoped[4].

The numbers of people designating themselves as members of ethnic groups are small, but its worth noting that the largest category was Chinese[5].

2.2 Republic of Ireland
For our purposes, the most notable results from the census in the Republic in 2002 are the following:

· that the number of people designating themselves as protestants had increased since 1991, reversing a secular decline from 1881. The numbers in the Church of Ireland category increased, but proportionately the most dramatic increases were in the Presbyterian and Methodist categories. The ranks of these denominations were increased mainly by African immigrants.

· that the number of people designating themselves as Muslim increased by a factor of four; from 4, 750 in 1991 to 19,000 in 2001;

· that the number of people designating themselves as Orthodox Christians increased from less than 400 in 1991 to more than 10,000 in 2002;

· that the small Jewish community got smaller still.[6]

These figures are already out of date. According to the latest population estimates from the Central Statistics Office[7] immigration has fallen-off since the census in 2002, but it still accounted for 45% of population growth. Apart from returning Irish, the largest single group come from the UK [12%]. The next largest is Chinese [9%], but 8% of immigrants in 2004 came from central and eastern Europe – presumably adding to the numbers in the Orthodox Church in Ireland. Indeed, an Orthodox priest from Romania who I spoke to boasted that there were now more Orthodox Christians in the Republic than there were Presbyterians!

The number of people from African countries has also increased. According to one estimate, there are now 50,000 Africans living in the Republic. These include people with a variety of beliefs and denominations, but it is the African Pentecostal Churches that have received most attention. A colleague tells me that there are now up to 100 evangelical churches with a combined membership in excess of 10,000 in the Republic[8]. This is much higher than the 2002 census would suggest. The census enumerated only 26,515 people who said they were born in Africa, but a significant number of Africans living in Ireland were born in other European countries.

Immigration has not only brought more people of different faiths it has also brought people who may belong to familiar Christian denominations, but who worship in a different way to the locals.

Evangelical Africans who first came here joined established Irish congregations, but as their numbers grew they gradually set-up their own separate churches with their own pastors, first renting space from the existing churches and then finding their own premises. This ethnic differentiation is such that there is now a separate Chinese evangelical church, with its own Chinese Pastor[9].

I believe that a similar pattern is developing amongst Orthodox Christians in Ireland. Initially when numbers were small, one church catered for Orthodox Christians from different countries, but as the population has grown it has subdivided by national group, such that there are now Russian congregations, Romanian congregations and a Greek congregations. Altogether, I’m told that there are ten parishes in Republic and two in Northern Ireland, with five acting priests and two deacons. At the moment there is no Greek priest, and the Greek Orthodox congregation is now less evident than the Russian or the Romanian and Moldovan[10].

I am not sure if this pattern has been displayed amongst Muslims.

Institutional context: cultural pluralism old and new
To say that Ireland became a much more culturally diverse place during the 1990s is now a commonplace observation now, but it took many people unawares. However, it is not as if we were unfamiliar with the problems posed by cultural diversity; indeed the onset of the Troubles in the late 1960s prompted the development of a form of cultural pluralism that sought to reconcile Catholics and Protestants. In my book, I call this the old pluralist agenda. It starts with Garret FitzGerald’s ill-fated constitutional crusade in the early 1980s, was developed through the new Ireland Forum and the Anglo-Irish Agreement and culminated in the GFA. Just as that old agenda was completed, a new one was being opened up - this new pluralist agenda is concerned with immigrants and refugees.

The question is whether the ideas and policies and institutions developed as part of the old agenda are adequate in the context of the new.

Some commentators were very optimistic. Echoing the statement from Bertie Ahern that I quoted at the start of this paper, Paddy Logue, in a book called Being Irish claimed that,

"the peace process has allowed us to snap out of the trance of the two traditions, that mutual obsession of nationalists and unionists, the hypnotic focus of a cobra and a mongoose about to attack each other. As the shouts and din of ancient quarrel begin to subside, we hear other voices. In Ireland today there are atheists, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, socialists, Chinese, Travellers, blacks, Moslems, gays, asylum seekers, feminists, and others, all of whom locate themselves outside the two traditions and are entitled to parity of esteem and equality of treatment "(2000: xviii).

I no longer share Logue’s optimism. Let me show you a sentence from the GFA:

(v) affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities;

(vi) recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland (1998: 2, my italics).

I want to do is to draw your attention to the bits I have put in Italics.

There is much that is good here. It enjoins the signatories to the Agreement to be impartial with respect to ‘all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions’. This would tend to support Logue’s view of the Agreement. But note that by the time we reach the end of the statement parity of esteem is ac­corded to the identities, ethos and aspirations of only two communities; i.e. a Protestant one and a Catholic one.

In the provenance of the ideas and concepts that under­pin it, cultural pluralism in Ireland shares much with liberal multiculturalism elsewhere; however it remains enduringly bicultural rather than truly multicultural.

But the problem isn’t simply that the GFA privileges two cultural identities: it is also to do with how these identities are conceived. One of the things it cultural pluralism in Ireland shares with liberal multiculturalism elsewhere in the world is what is known in the academic literature as an essentialist or primordial view of cultural identity. Allow me to explain what that means.

The easiest way to get at this is to look at the notion of parity of esteem.

Parity of Esteem and Essentialism
The assumption or theory implicit in the concept of parity of esteem is that our individual identities, our sense of who we are and what is meaningful to us is dependent on our collective cultural identity. If this is true, then in a liberal democratic regime collective cultural identities require official recognition for if such recognition is not granted the dignity of the individual will be damaged. This is based on a theory of culture, derived from Johanne Herder in the eighteenth century, as the unchanging, inherited way of life, custom and practice of a people or group or community. This is what is known as essentialism or primoridalism.

I wouldn’t deny that collective cultural or communal identities sometimes crystallise in forms that approximate to what I’ve called primordial or essentialist. As Maurna Crozier points out in the book that I’ve edited, ‘in times of despair or celebration … people … repair to the places of their fundamental allegiance’[11]. There are times and circum­stances, usually of crisis, when the distance between indi­vidual and collective identities collapses and ‘crys­tallise’ such as to exhibit the emotionally-laden sense of be­longing to a bounded group with a distinct culture that an essentialist concept of identity would suggest. This is often the case for oppressed minorities. It certainly was the case for many people in Northern Ire­land during the Troubles . But it is the exception rather than the rule in the late modern world. Culture can no longer be understood simply as the inherited way of life of a group or a people; rather it is better understood as symbolic practice, a con­tested process through which we attach meaning to our lives and our world.

Ireland, like the rest of the late-modern world is no longer divided up into two discrete, hermetically sealed, internally co­herent cultures, one to each community. Nor is it proven that the individual needs a single, coherent communal cul­ture to give shape and meaning to his or her life. As the Black-British sociologist Stuart Hall says, this is not to deny the role that culture plays in enabling individuals to exercise autonomy and to make meaningful choices, rather it is to insist that in doing so we all, deliberately and inadvertently, ‘draw on the fragmented traces and broken repertoires of several cultural and ethical languages’[12].

The great achievement of the GFA was that it removed or lessened the crises that precipitated two communal identities which sometimes exhibited the features that essentialist theory would predict. Its great weakness is that by enshrining identity in the constitution, it not only ensures the perpetuation of these two communal identities but tends to promote their further reification ; i.e. it encourages people to define themselves in terms of a particular identity and to dig in behind it and to defend it.

It seems to me that this old form of pluralism is inadequate to the new pluralist agenda. Indeed it would seem to be inhibiting the new pluralist agenda. Let me give you a few examples of this.

How old-style pluralism inhibits the new
My first example is the recent racist attacks on Chinese people living and working in loyalist parts of south Belfast. Local community leaders sought to explain or even to justify these attacks by the suggesting that the Chinese posed a threat to the heritage, way of life and Britishness of local Protestant residents[13]. There is nothing new in white racists appropriating the language of multiculturalism, but the defence of a threatened way of life has a specific local resonance in the context of the peace process.

On the other hand some northern nationalists fear that talk of in­creasing cultural diversification is a unionist ploy to dilute what they achieved in the GFA: ‘[w]hen Irish nationalists hear reference to multi-ethnic integration they naturally are concerned that their gains will be lost’[14].

There are several instances in which unionist and nationalist politicians have attempt to appropriate the more visible presence of racialised minorities in Ireland to their own hegemonic ends, or to silence each other. For example, shortly after the appointment of Ministers to the new North­ern Ireland Executive established under the terms of the Agreement, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mi­chael McGimpsey, a liberal member of the Unionist Party, was asked how he felt about his new responsibility to pro­mote the Irish language. He replied to the effect that, though his own medium was English, he had no problem promoting minority languages such as Scots-Irish and Gaelic, but added that ‘Cantonese was the second language of Northern Ireland’[15]. McGimpsey’s tongue was in his cheek, but his statement and the anxieties that it might arouse, particularly among nationalists, are in­dicative of the subtleties of cultural politics in Ireland after the Agreement.

These examples are taken from the North, but the South is not immune as the recent citizenship referendum shows. It was this, more than anything else that confirmed my doubts about the adequacy of the old-style pluralism embodies in the GFA. It was a test case in the sense that it was a moment when old and new pluralist agendas collided. On the one hand, the Government sought to justify the referendum by describing the change to Article 2 of the constitution which gave citizenship rights to any­one born on the island as being an unintended consequence of the GFA: a ‘loophole’ that had been created in the process of securing an historic peace settlement, which was now being exploited by ‘citizenship tourists’ from outside the EU who were coming to Ireland with the intention of giving birth on Irish soil[16]. On the other hand, opponents of referendum argued that it breached the spirit if not the letter of the GFA.

I public ally opposed the referendum for a variety of reasons, but not because I thought it breached the letter or the spirit of the Agreement. On the contrary it seemed to me that the referendum was not a breach of GFA but confirmation of its reductive and essentialist logic. Certainly, if the GFA seemed to suggest a loosening of the connec­tion between citizenship and national identity - you could Irish or British or both and whatever you chose you were entitled to Irish citizenship - the referendum can be seen, in part, as an attempt to reassert the connection. Michael McDowell, who as Minister for Jus­tice headed the government’s referendum campaign, said as much: he told the Dail that

Article 9 of the constitution – which states that “fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State are fundamental political duties of all citizens”– encapsulated “the essence of the intertwined concepts of citizenship and nationality”

But if the government wanted to reassert the connection between citizenship, national identity and political community, why did they not do something about the ‘Irish Granny rule’ which grants the right of citizenship not only to the children but even the grandchildren of Irish citizens living abroad, including hundreds of thousands of people who have no other connection to the island or any desire to live here? The conclusion seems as inescapable as it is unpalatable, and seems to confirm the suspicions of those who said the referendum bore the taint of racism. But it isn’t just racialised minorities who are excluded from the new dispensation in Ireland.

When I was looking at the censuses in preparation for this talk, there were some statistics that get little attention in the media, but to me are striking, I suppose because they affirm what I was saying about the fluid, changing nature of cultural identity in Ireland today and the limits of old-style pluralism which seeks to reduce us to one of two single, unitary categories. I am referring to the growing number of people who refuse to identify themselves as belonging to any religious category.

At the 1991 census in Northern Ireland, more than 11% of respondents could not be classified as Protestants or Catholics either because they did not state a religion or because they reported having none. In 2001, the proportion refusing religious identification was closer to 14%[17]. These people are significant portion of the population, and the number is growing. Although they refuse to designates themselves as Protestant or Catholic they do not escape the ineluctable grip of identity: as you will recall, the Northern Ireland census requires respondents to state their communal background, and on this basis many of the ‘refusnicks’ were re-allocated to the Protestant category. Equally, we should note that the number of people in the South who described themselves as having no religion more than doubled between 1991 and 2002 from 66, 270 to 138,264[18].

Conventionally, I suspect that these figures might be interpreted as yet more evidence that Irish people are losing their traditional inherited values and becoming materialist, individualised consumers. I don’t see it that way. As I said, we all seek to give meaning and value to our lives, the difference is that today we can draw, as Stuart Hall says, ‘on the fragmented traces and broken repertoires of several cultural and ethical languages’. I do not think that this is a bad thing, but I suspect that it makes the task of broadcasters who wish to identify target audiences and communal spokespersons that bit more difficult.

By way of conclusion, the logic of this paper is to suggest that a little less respect be accorded to the religious and cultural traditions of the two communities that are privileged in the old-style pluralism of the GFA and substantially more to those who identify themselves with other religious traditions, or none.


[1] Finlay A. (Ed) (2004 Forthcoming) Nationalism and Multiculturalism: Irish Identity, Citizenship and the Peace Process, Berlin and London: LIT.

[2] Logue, P. (Ed) (2000) Being Irish Personal Reflections on Irish Identity Today, Dublin: Oaktree Press.

[3] King, R. Recognising Difference, Decolonising Rights: The Multiracial movement and the US census, Phil in Ethnic and Racial Studies/Dept. of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin Seminar, 14/11/04. See also O’Toole (Irish Times 24/3/00).

[4] CONI (Census Office of Northern Ireland), Northern Ireland Census of Population 2001: census.

[5] 1,685,267 people described themselves as ‘white’, 3319 ‘mixed’, 2679 ‘Asian’, 1136 ‘black’, 5435 ‘Chinese or other ethnic group’.

[6] Central Statistics Office (2004) Census 2002:, Vol. 12 Religion,

[7] Coulter (Irish Times 8/9/04) – compiled using National Household Survey, and data from airports and seaports, the register of electors, child benefit scheme, numbers of visas, work permits and asylum applications.

[8] Abel Ugba. Personal communication 28/9/04

[9] Abel Ugba. Personal communication 28/9/04

[10] Christian Gheorghiu personal communication 7/10/04.

[11] Crozier, M. (2004 Forthcoming) ‘Pre-Political Groundwork and Cultural identity:

the Northern Ireland Experience’ in Finlay. A. (Ed) op cit.

[12] Hall, S. (2000), ‘Conclusion: the Multicultural Question’ in B. Hesse, ed., Un/Settled Muliculturalisms: Diasporas, En­tanglements, “Transruptions”. London: Zed Books.

[13] The Irish Times 13/3/04, The Scotsman 16/3/04

[14] Harvey, C. (2003) ‘Sticking to the Terms of the Agreement’, Fortnight 416, 9 (July/August).

[15] BBC Northern Ireland, 2/12/99.

[16] The Sunday Times 11/4/04, The Sunday Tribune 25/4/04

[17] CONI (Census Office of Northern Ireland), Northern Ireland Census of Population 2001: census/pdf/Key%20Statistics%20ReportTables.pdf

[18] Nb that only 1,107 described themselves in this way in 1961, first time these figures were collected. Also note that in 2002, most of those who claim no religion were born in Ireland (78, 503) and more than 50% described themselves as Irish, but of those born elsewhere, most (24,226) were born in UK, though 7,007 born in Asia. Also they are more likely to be male