Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time | Religion


Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time, a demographic milestone for a state that was designed a century ago to have a permanent Protestant majority.

The results of the 2021 census released on Thursday showed that 45.7% of residents are Catholic or of Catholic origin compared to 43.48% of Protestant or other Christian origin. The 2011 census figures were 45% Catholic and 48% Protestant. Neither block has a majority.

The demographic tilt was expected, but will deal a psychological blow to trade unionists, who for decades have relied on a supposedly impregnable Protestant majority to safeguard Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.

Diarmaid Ferriter, historian and author, said, “It’s been a long time coming. They have already witnessed the loss of their political supremacy. Seeing the loss of their numerical supremacy is another blow.

Higher birth rates among Catholics gradually closed the gap, a closely watched measure since they tended to identify as Irish while Protestants tended to identify as British. But religious background and political identity no longer automatically transfer to voting habits, Ferriter said. “So much is blurry now.”

In recent elections, support for nationalist and unionist parties peaked at around 40% for each side, leaving a middle 20% of voters who are unaligned and reject traditional sectarian labels. Opinion polls consistently show that more people would rather stay in the UK – citing taxes and the NHS, among other reasons – than unite with Ireland.

However. the census, the first since Brexit, showed a loosening of British identity. Some 31.86% identified as British only, 29.13% as Irish only and 19.78% as Northern Irish only. In 2011 the figures were 40% British only, 25% Irish only and 21% Northern Irish only.

The census, published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agencyalso showed Northern Ireland with its highest population, 1.9 million, a 5% increase from 2011. It is ageing, with the number of people over the age of 65 increasing by almost 25%.

Data on religious background – a stark contrast to the founding of the state in 1921, when Britain separated six counties from the rest of Ireland to create a two-thirds Protestant entity – comes in at a difficult time for trade unionism. A post-Brexit Irish Sea border has put trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain. In May’s assembly elections, Sinn Féin overtook the Democratic Unionist Party as Northern Ireland’s largest party, bolstering its calls for a referendum on Irish unity.

Duncan Morrow, professor of politics at Ulster University, said: “The state was created to put a ring of protection around Protestants. You cannot remove the symbolic scope of this change.

In a referendum, Northern Ireland’s fate could rest with centrist voters who defy easy political categorization, with many feeling Northern Irish as opposed to Irish or British, Morrow said. Young people were most eager for Irish unity, he added. “It’s a ticking clock.”

Patricia McBride, spokesperson for The future of Ireland, a group that promotes border polling, said religious affiliation and national identity would not necessarily determine how people vote. Taxation, public services and other key issues could be decisive, she added.

“People are much more likely to question whether they are better off financially or not. It’s not as simple as voting with the heart, people will also vote with the head,” she said.


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