The 2021 census results published on Thursday indicate that for the first time since Northern Ireland was separated from the rest of the island, it has a Catholic plurality. For many, this raises hopes of a united Ireland.
Data from the 2021 census showed that 45.7 percent of respondents identified as Catholic or were brought up Catholic, compared with 43.5 percent. identifying as Protestants. The previous census in 2011 showed Protestants outnumbered Catholics 48 percent to 45 percent.
Northern Ireland was created out of six counties of the province of Ulster, where Protestants descended largely from Scottish and English settlers had the majority. Protestants were also more likely to consider themselves British rather than Irish and preferred to stay within the United Kingdom rather than become live in the Catholic-dominated Irish Free State. In 1922, when Ireland was partitioned, there were two Protestants for every Catholic.
A century later, the Catholics, who are more likely to identify as Irish, have become the largest single religious group. Data indicate that the Catholic population is generally younger and tends to have more children, so the change was bound to come sooner or later.
“Today’s results are another clear indication that historic change is happening across this island,” said Michelle O’Neill, regional leader of Irish nationalists Sinn Féin, which for the first time became the largest party in Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament in the latest election. Sinn Féin is also calling for a referendum on uniting with the Republic of Ireland, citing this as well as the fact that in 2016, 56 pct. of NI voters were against Brexit.
However, opinion polls indicate that a clear majority favour NI remaining part of the United Kingdom.
While historically religious affiliation was a pretty good way to guess whether a person identified as Irish and Nationalist or British and Unionist, since The Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement, these divisions have become less clearly defined.
A significant minority of Catholic and Protestant voters support the cross-community Alliance Party, which doubled its number of seats in the May election. And while Catholics are the plurality now, that is not the same as the majority. Ignoring religious upbringing and focusing on current self-identification, 17 pct. of the population declares no religious affiliation, up from 10 pct. in 2021. There have always existed a small group of Protestant Nationalists and Catholic Unionists.
Another census question found that 32 pct. of respondents identified solely as British (down from 40 pct. in 2011), with 29 pct. seeing themselves as Irish (up from 25 pct.). A further 20 pct. said they were Northern Irish. The remainder either identify as a combination of those or have immigrant backgrounds.
“On all the demographic indicators and indeed political indicators, unionism is up against it and longer-term things do not look good for Northern Ireland’s place within the UK,” said Jon Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool.
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