"It will do no more than annoy the Protestants": the 1991 Northern Ireland census and the Irish language

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Making use of archival sources, this article reconstructs the decision-making process behind the addition of an Irish language question to the 1991 Northern Ireland census. It highlights a distinctive feature of the case: whereas such decisions usually result from state-society interactions, the question was rather suggested by the Irish government, using the role granted to it by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to act as a kin state to promote the cultural interests of nationalists in Northern Ireland. Officials in Belfast were initially reluctant to accede to this request, though feared refusal might result in a repeat of nationalist boycotts of previous censuses. Ultimately, the precedent set by language questions employed in Wales and Scotland made exclusion hard to justify and officials reluctantly agreed to the question, coming to see the precedent as a useful argument with which to fend off potential unionist opposition, which they feared might have resulted in a rival boycott. The inclusion of the question has subsequently had significant consequences for political claims-making about the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)269-289
Number of pages21
JournalNationalism and Ethnic Politics
Issue number3
Early online date24 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 12 Aug 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council grant ES/N01684X/1.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.


  • census
  • language rights
  • Northern Ireland
  • Irish language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Political Science and International Relations


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