Young, gifted and on a boat out of Ulster

December 10, 1999

Protestant unease at Ulster's new Catholic education ministers masks a deeper concern - the flight of Unionists. Anne McHardy reports.

David Trimble, the new first minister of Northern Ireland, is acutely aware that every year 12,000 undergraduates leave Northern Ireland for university in Britain and that only 70 to 80 per cent will return.

All parents waving off 18-year-olds off know they are in effect leaving for good, but the same departures in Northern Ireland are a brain drain with a political significance. Those leaving are largely Protestant and have good A-levels, which means the young high-fliers graduating onto the job market in Northern Ireland tend to be Catholic. This in turn affects the sectarian balance within the professions, the civil service and business. The decision of those leaving to stay away is influenced by many factors, but includes a lack of stability and jobs. Those who return frequently come back to family professional firms or businesses.

The percentage of Catholics to Protestants in Northern Ireland is increasing, with Catholics now accounting for 39 per cent and Protestants 61 per cent. Thirty years ago, the ratio was 33:66 per cent. And the Protestant population is ageing.

Trimble - father of four, including some nearing university age - understands the trend and the emotion it generates. As a law lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast, before he became a Westminster MP, he watched the university's student population become predominantly Catholic.

Speaking a few months ago, when the creation of the Northern Ireland Executive still seemed in doubt, he said: "Over the past 15 years, middle-class families have been sending kids to Scotland out of the instability. Also, the Scottish universities have been recruiting. Dundee is 40 per cent Northern Irish; St Andrews has large numbers too.

"There is also a lack of university places in Northern Ireland. What happens is leavers in the east of Ulster go to Scotland and those in the the west to Queen's. Not that many come home. Middle-class Protestants always went to Queen's until 22 years ago." The east of Northern Ireland is predominantly Protestant, the west Catholic.

Historically, Trinity College, Dublin, was a Protestant institution attracting middle-class Protestants. One of Trimble's ministers, Michael McGimpsey, a Trinity graduate, typifies that trend. But he is atypical in that his son Gareth opted for Queen's in the north.

Thirty years ago, the balance among graduates in Ulster's universities was weighted towards Protestants because Catholics, after generations of limited education, rarely went on to higher education. So the change has a welcome side. The beginning of the civil rights movement at Queen's in 1968 is attributed to the arrival of the first waves of Catholic students, who benefited from the post-war expansion of universities. The unwelcome side is that the emigration of young Protestants adds to the unease of the Unionists, whose support the executive needs. If their children all leave, they see no future for the Protestant tradition in Ulster.

This was one reason for the concern in Stormont, expressed loudly by the Unionist Ian Paisley, when two Catholics took education portfolios - Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, as minister for education, then Sean Farren, of the larger nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, for higher and further education. It had been expected that one education job would go to a Catholic, one to a Protestant.

The concern is shared by Farren and McGuinness, who both believe diversity is essential, and by the universities.

Bob Cormac and Tony Gallagher of Queen's and Robert Osborne of UU quantified the migration trend in a 1996 survey. Of 54,565 undergraduates in Northern Ireland (31,302 full-time), 1,006 went to the Irish Republic, and 14,536 to Britain. The latter includes "low-fliers", attracted by lower entry qualifications in newer British institutions, but it is the high-fliers who tend to stay away.

Trimble, who has discussed the problem with secretary of state for education David Blunkett, wants more university places created in Ulster and an improved economic base providing attractive work. A year ago, Blunkett promised new places and Queen's and UU have unveiled plans for a joint campus, Springvale, on the peace line in Belfast.

Queen's has also been acutely aware of the "chill factor" for young Protestants created by its growing Catholic population, which has resulted in overt nationalist symbols appearing within the university - including signs in Irish. The national anthem is no longer played on formal occasions. In an effort to redress the balance, the Students Union carried out a survey in 1997, which concluded that the Irish signs should be removed.

There are signs that the balance of migration may be altering, driven perhaps by peace, but also by the shift of the financial burden of higher education from the state to parents. But politicians from Trimble down are clear that the new executive still needs to work to tip the balance.

'I THINK THAT NOT RUNNING AWAY HAS HELPED'

Michelle Bostock decided to buck the trend among her friends when she was choosing a university. The 22-year-old, who graduated in geography this summer, says: "It was (a concern) that Queen's University was becoming very nationalist." She wanted to be near her family, but also felt obliged, as a young Protestant, to remain in the province.

She joined the Unionist Party at 16. Her father, a Unionist voter, joined soon after. Since graduation she has worked for Unionist assembly member Michael McGimpsey, one of the three Unionist ministers in the new executive.

"A lot of my contemporaries were going to England and Scotland and many were saying our heritage and culture were not there at Queen's. I felt if I wanted my heritage and culture preserved, then I should get in there."

When she arrived, the campus displayed notices in English and Irish. "I felt we shouldn't have Orange marches inside the university, but what I had seen was a bias on the other side. I felt we shouldn't have Gaelic signs."

Once over the initial problems, Michelle enjoyed the diversity, mixing with Catholics. She believes efforts by the university, changes in university costs and the peace process are bringing about improvements. "The Gaelic signs are gone. More people are staying. I would like to think that people not running away - like me - has helped," she says.

'N.IRELAND IS A FUNNY PLACE, VERY INSULAR'

Joy Piggot has five children, four of whom went to England to study and never returned. When their children were small, Joy and her husband, Jim, lived in Malone, the mixed middle-class area near Queen's in Belfast. They now live to the east on Belfast Lough.

Like many of their friends, they encouraged their children to leave to go to university. "Things were very unsettled. We encouraged them to get out of Northern Ireland for a life of normality." Her children, all in their thirties now, say they know Belfast less well than most other UK cities. The violence while they were growing up meant a restriction on their freedom. "If they went out you fetched them. Children never got on the bus, so they don't know Northern Ireland," says Joy. "It's a funny place, very insular. When the Troubles got bad, we started to take the children to Cornwall on holiday.

"There is a sort of inferiority complex in Northern Irish children," she says. They remain loyal, coming home twice a year. "But they don't have many friends here, except those whose families had businesses. An orthopaedic surgeon (like my husband) doesn't have much to hand on."

If the peace settlement works, as she hopes it will, she says the next generation may opt to stay. But most of her grandchildren are unlikely to be among them, since all four of her leavers are married to English or Scots partners.

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