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The Vacuum Issue 6 spacer Issue 6
Count Me Out - The Northern Ireland Census
by Neal Alexander
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Datasets and their attendant paraphernalia give me the fear. I feel oppressed and confused by neat columns of figures marching down the page or screen, disoriented by colour-coded graphs and the arcane jargon of statistical analysis. Pie-charts are less intimidating, but still have a sinister, inedible aspect. Because of these limitations, I have to confess to bewildered defeat when confronted with the formidable research resources of the Northern Ireland Statistics website (www.nisra.gov.uk), which provides information on the Northern Ireland Census and its regulating body, the Census Office for Northern Ireland (CONI). So, whilst I'm wary of claiming the position of 'layman', or 'man-on-the-street', the following remarks and observations on the census are largely uniformed by the perspectives of political science. This may or may not be a good thing.
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At its most basic, a census is an official headcount made for the purposes of taxation, and has been a feature of governmental apparatuses for several millennia: it was a (Roman) census that brought Christ's parents to a stable in the usually quiet village of Bethlehem. As a demographic tool it also collates the statistical information upon which policy decisions are supposedly made. However, as with most things, it's not quite that simple in Northern Ireland, where political imperatives inform both analysis and evaluation to an unusual degree. The last census was taken on Sunday 29 April, 2001, showcasing a number of structural innovations and making a specific point of its pretensions to inclusiveness: "The census is for everybody, so let's help each other get counted in" quipped the chirpy promotional blurb. This was always asking for trouble, and it was unsurprising that, because 2001 was the first census to question the population on their knowledge of the Irish language, DUP assemblyman Jim Wells should want to dwell on the "extremely unfortunate" absence of an Ulster Scots tick box. On the other hand, this was the first time that Sinn Fein had backed the census, having boycotted previous efforts. They could hardly do so unconditionally though, and Mitchell McLaughlin exercised his critical faculties upon the precise wording of the document. "The continued reference throughout the booklet to the term "Roman Catholic" is," he claimed, "not only a poor descriptive term that can dissuade people from identifying themselves, it is also overtly sectarian." He doesn't seem to have felt the need to expand upon this latter accusation, nor to extend his objection to the term "Protestant" - which is the 'proper' name for Huns - but he does make an important point. In an increasingly secularised Western society the terminology of religious denominations has lost much of its purchase on the constitution of individual and collective identities, and, despite its seeming imperviousness, Northern Ireland has not remained unaffected.
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This has had important repercussions for the Northern Ireland Census, which has long been regarded not only as a bank of demographic statistics, but also as an indicator of voting patterns that may reveal the potential 'swing' between Unionist majority and Nationalist minority. This is because of the assumed high correlation between religious identity and political sympathies, with media interest tending to consist of furious speculation over when - rather then if - the Catholic population will overtake the longstanding Protestant majority. A spanner was thrown in the works of this explicitly 'sectarian' analysis, however, when in 1991 those not indicating a religious affiliation rose to 12%, making it "difficult to assess the overall picture" using the same long-serving criteria. Rather than rethinking their entire approach, though, CONI simply reformulated the original question for the 2001 census, asking those who did not have a current religious identity to indicate the religious community they had been brought up in, thus providing a "community background measure" that could be collapsedback into the original category of religious identity. According to one analyst, "many people seemed content with this approach", and it certainly succeeded in reducing that troublesome 12% to a more manageable 2.72%. The Catholic-Protestant balance worked out at 43.76% to 53.13% respectively, with a remainder of 0.39% who subscribe to "other religions and philosophies".
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I, for one, am not content with this approach. Not only does it indicate an unwillingness to countenance the idea that "religious communities" themselves are being progressively eroded both as concept and reality, but it also institutionalises the Northern truism that here there are only Protestant and Catholic atheists. Furthermore, because this recuperation of religious identity as determining criterion is implicitly tied to a set of speculations on shifts of political power, it also implies the existence of a peculiarly emaciated political culture in Northern Ireland. Indeed, in its retention of the correlative model, this analysis assumes an extraordinary lack of individual autonomy in the polling booth, where votes are putatively cast according to the all-powerful dictates of the "religious community" rather than as a result of personal convictions and a subjective assessment of the candidates and their policies. The monolithic equation that proves Protestants vote Unionist and Catholics vote Nationalist has shifted the focus from the 'deadlocked' political arena itself to the demographics of births, deaths, and migration. It is not only that the census acquiesces in this reductive and deterministic mode of analysis, but that, through its continued focus upon the population's "religious background", it also serves to promote and sustain it. There may be good reasons for this deeply cynical approach, but even a cursory survey of Ireland's political history indicates that the correlation upon which it rests has been far from stable, whilst a glance at the reconfigurations of contemporary Western society would show that "religious background" is hardly a secure bulwark of either individual or collective identity.
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Compliance with the census's criteria of analysis is compulsory - those who fail to complete and return their forms, to be 'counted in', face prosecution and a fine. This is the iron fist in the velvet glove of CONI's rhetoric of incorporation and inclusiveness. Indeed, while it may be foolish to allow the terms of critique to slide into the consolations of paranoia, CONI's disclosure that the "essential statistical data" gleaned from the census will be "used by the Government, business and other professional research/consultancy organisations" does seem to echo the sinister surveillance technologies disclosed by the "questionnaire" included in the packaging for Radiohead's Airbag/How Am I Driving? ep: "The results of this intrusion into your life will be used 'responsibly' in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. Of course, the innocent have nothing to fear from the rapidly expanding data industry." Count me out.
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Count Me Out - The Northern Ireland Census
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