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Unionist psyche unsettled by change in status quo: Catholics are playing a more prominent role in Ulster's economy

OVER THE past two decades Northern Ireland has undergone a series of fundamental economic and demographic changes which are having profoundly unsettling effects on the Unionist psyche.

Although anti-Catholic discrimination and inequities linger, the system has changed a great deal since a Unionist prime minister was able to describe Stormont as a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.

Within a generation Northern Ireland has almost lost its Protestant-dominated industrial base, gaining in its place a public-sector economy in which Catholics are playing an increasingly prominent role. More jobs, including some of the top positions, are going to Catholics.

At the bottom end of the scale Catholic unemployment remains high, but more Protestants are joining the dole queues. One churchman said: 'Protestants are now facing unemployment in a way they have never faced it before.'

Some of the changes come from the fair employment policy that is being pursued by the Government: and here some nationalist observers say that what is happening is the inevitable consequence of the loss of traditional Protestant privilege. The more unsympathetic describe it as a Thatcherite-style 'shake-out'.

Underlying these changes are even more unsettling trends. The state of Northern Ireland was traditionally based on a 2-1 proportion of Protestants to Catholics, but the latest census shows that the Catholic population has risen to 42 or 43 per cent. The west of the province now has a Catholic majority, while Belfast will probably have a Catholic majority before the end of the century. Catholics tended to emigrate more than Protestants, but there are indications that this trend has been reversed. There is certainly a brain drain to mainland Britain of bright Protestant students.

Within Northern Ireland many Protestants are leaving areas with growing Catholic populations to cluster, in a striking geographical illustration of the siege mentality, in Protestant-majority districts. There is a marked drift towards the east, while elsewhere a few 'fortress towns' stand out against the rising Catholic tide.

Politically and economically, many Unionists feel their backs are to the wall. More of their number are resorting to violence, or emigrating, or showing signs of defeatism. Unionism is behaving as a frontier community whose frontiers are steadily contracting, and whose world is changing too fast for comfort.

(Photograph omitted)