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'Historic' shift for Northern Ireland but what do the Census findings tell us about its future?

The concept of a Protestant State for a Protestant people has ‘evaporated’, one expert said.

The Peace bridge in Derry.
The Peace bridge in Derry.
Image: Shutterstock/Irina Wilhauk

IN A HISTORICAL context, Catholics outnumbering Protestants is the “most important” finding in the latest Northern Ireland Census, which was released this morning.

That’s according to Jon Tonge, who is a British and Irish politics professor at the University of Liverpool.

He notes that the “history of Northern Ireland was the creation of a Protestant State for a Protestant people,” but that this has now “evaporated”.

However, Boyd Sleator, who is the co-ordinator for the Northern Ireland Humanists, argues that the “dominant narrative” of the 2021 census ought to be rise of the non-religious in the North.

The non-religious grouping (17.4%) is now second only to the Catholic population (42.3%), outnumbering all Protestant denominations.

‘Symbolic’

Tonge says Catholics outnumbering protestants is the ‘most symbolic’ figure in the census.

When combining current religion with religion of upbringing, 45.7% of the population is ‘Catholic’, while 43.5% are ‘Protestant’.

“Six counties were carved out of Ulster because Protestant unionists at the time didn’t want to risk an insecure 56 to 44% Protestant to Catholic majority within the new state.

“Only six out of nine counties were included deliberately to create a more secure, three to one Protestant to Catholic majority.

“We’ve gone from that, to a two to one Protestant majority, to Catholics now out-numbering Protestants. The sectarian headcount that made up Northern Ireland has now gone,” said Tonge.

Polish is the second most prevalent languages other than English in Northern Ireland and Poland is a predominately Catholic country.

Tonge says there has not been enough research on how Polish people would vote in a constitutional referendum.

He added that there has been a ‘Protestant brain drain’, with “Protestants leaving Northern Ireland, going to universities on this side of the water, and not returning to Northern Ireland”.

While Tonge expects the gap between the Catholic and Protestant population to increase further, he adds that the number of those identifying as having ‘no religion’ will also continue to grow.

However, he added that the there is “still a political basis for Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom” because opinion polls suggest that there’s still a majority that favours Northern Ireland being part of the UK.

“So today is important in symbolic terms, but in terms of changing the constitutional status in Northern Ireland, it’s only a baby step along that road,” opined Tonge.

However, Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said “today’s census results are another clear indication that historic change is happening”.

“There is no doubt change is under way and irreversible,” said the North Belfast MP.

“But we must prepare for it. The Irish government should establish a citizens’ assembly to plan for the possibility of a unity referendum.

“That planning and dialogue and engagement needs to happen now, and it must include people from all backgrounds and communities.”

And while SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged that this “seminal moment… should not be downplayed or diminished”, DUP MLA Philip Brett warned the census results should not be interpreted as a “mini-referendum” on the constitutional future.

“To draw political conclusions based on the number of Protestants and Catholics is simplistic and lazy”, said Brett.

‘Ominous’

While Tonge notes the “symbolism” of the census showing Catholics outnumbering Protestants for the first time in the region’s 100-year history, he says the figure of “greatest significance in some ways is the decline in those identifying as British”.

  • ‘British only’ – 31.9% (down from 722,400 in 2011 to 606,300 in 2021)
  • ‘Irish only’ – 29.1%% (up from 457,500 in 2011 to 554,400)
  • ‘Northern Irish only’ – 19.8% (down from 379,300 people in 2011 and 376,400)

“The British identity is in decline and the voting for unionist parties is in decline. It is pretty ominous for unionism,” said Tonge.

“But there’s still plenty of agnostics or atheists out there who still need persuading of the merits of a United Ireland to get nationalists and Republicans over the line in terms of what they want.”

The numbers of those identifying as having no religion is at 17.4%, a marked increase on the 10.1% in the 2011 census.

Boyd Sleator, co-ordinator of Northern Ireland Humanists, says there’s been a “real terms growth of 81% in the non-religious grouping, the biggest growth in Northern Ireland”.

He suggested that the growth in the Catholic population, which he describes as “very tiny”, is due to immigration from countries like Poland.

Education

Sleator said the schooling system should now reflect the fact that the non-religious grouping is now the second largest in Northern Ireland.

“We have a completely Christian ethos schooling system in Northern Ireland, even the integrated schools have to abide by this legislation,” said Sleator.

He added: “This has now gone through the courts, and it’s been shown that it’s in breach of human rights, so we’re waiting for a final order to come on what should  happen there.”

However, Sleator says he is in favour of some type of religious education within schools, but perhaps under a different heading.

He said he is “100% in favour” of a “broad and plural curriculum, which covers major world beliefs, and those who hold other philosophical worldviews”.

“Some schools do it well, others do not. We don’t really see any inclusion of other world religions or philosophical beliefs until GCSE (Junior Cert).

“So at the minute, it’s not plural, it’s not broad, it’s not inclusive. It’s basically a Christian curriculum.

“A lot of teachers of Religious Education in Northern Ireland come from a Christian faith background, and feel that it’s part of their service and their duty as a Christian person.

“Whereas in England and Wales, you actually see a lot of people from non-religious backgrounds teaching Religious Education.”

Sleator says he is calling for an education system which is “secular in its true sense”.

He describes this as “the inclusion of everybody and no one belief or faith or philosophical worldview getting a privileged position”.

“We’re not turning around and saying, ‘we want non-religious schools, we want you out of our schooling system.’ We’re saying let’s educate us all altogether.”

Sleator argued that this growth in the non-religious grouping should be the “dominant narrative and the biggest talking point”.

“The thing which really shows something different and unusual for a place which has been generally very conservative is this huge growth in non-religious people; one in six people in Northern Ireland are non-religious, that should be the talking point.”

However, Jon Tonge argues that it “cannot be forgotten that it was a religious headcount that set up Northern Ireland, which is why today, in symbolic terms, is seismic”.

Brexit

While the number of people holding British passports in Northern Ireland has dropped slightly from 1.07 million to 1 million, there have been a significant increase in Irish passport holders.

This number of people jointly or solely holding an Irish passport has jumped by 238,500 in the past decade to hit 614,300.

“Even Ian Paisley Jr talked about getting an Irish passport just after Brexit,” Tonge noted.

In a now deleted tweet, Paisley Jr wrote: “My advice is if you are entitled to a second passport, then take one.”

However, Tongue says many people from Protestant and British backgrounds now hold an Irish passport out of mere convenience.

“If you want to avoid the non-EU queues in airports, it’s quite handy to have an Irish passport to breeze through.

“So it’s more-so pragmatic and I don’t read too much into the details of Irish passports.”

But Tonge added: “Once upon a time it would have been anathema to have an Irish passport amongst the unionist population, but now it’s fairly routine”.

‘Northern Irish only’

While there’s been a sizeable decrease in the numbers of people identifying as ‘British only’, now standing at 31.9%, Tonge notes that there hasn’t been a significant rise in the Northern Irish grouping.

This grouping has been described in the census as “broadly stable”, decreasing slightly since the last census to 376,400 people, or 19.8% of the population.

“It’s sort of developed this narrative that people are identifying as this nice, cosy hybrid label ‘Northern Irish’. It’s not true,” said Tonge.

“The Northern Irish label means different things to different people. They tend to be the so called ‘soft unionist’ or ‘soft Irish’.”

“They would be more likely to vote UUP, Alliance or SDLP compared to those with a British identification who will tend to vote DUP.”

He says these ‘Northern Irish only’ cohort will be pivotal in a potential border poll.

“Northern Irish centre-ground voters, they’re the people who will be pivotal in a border poll. We know how unionists or nationalists are going to vote on border poll day.

“What we don’t know is how the ‘neithers’ will vote, and a lot of those ‘neithers’ are those who identify as no religion. A lot of those ‘neithers’ are those who identify as Northern Irish, so they are a really important grouping.

“You can’t just add them on to either those who favour constitutional status quo, or those in favour of a United Ireland. A lot of them are genuine ‘don’t knows’.”

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