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Northern Ireland Census records more Catholics than Protestants for the first time

A Sinn Féin MP said the results of the census clearly indicate that historic and irreversible change is underway.

Image: Shutterstock

Updated Sep 22nd 2022, 2:58 PM

THE NORTHERN IRELAND Census has recorded a higher total number of Catholics than Protestants for the first time in the region’s 100-year history.

The 2021 Census, which asked people about both their current religion and religion of upbringing, shows 45.7% of Northern Ireland’s population is or was raised Catholic, while 43.5% are Protestant or another Christian religion.

It is the first time that the proportion of Catholics in the population has surpassed the number of Protestants.

The Census figures usually prompt debate over what they may mean for Northern Ireland’s future and public opinion on the question of the reunification of Ireland. 

“In 2021, the main current religions were: Catholic (42.3%); Presbyterian (16.6%); Church of Ireland (11.5%); Methodist (2.3%); Other Christian denominations (6.9%); and Other religions (1.3%),” the Census figures outline.

A bulletin document releasing the figures said that “17.4% of our population had ‘No religion’ – this is a marked increase on 2011 when 10.1% had ‘No religion’”.

“This points to the increased secularisation of our population,” the bulletin said.

“The proportion of the population in Census 2021 with ‘No religion’ ranges from 30.6% in Ards & North Down council to 7.8% in Mid Ulster council. All councils are more secular in 2021 than they were ten years ago.

“Combining current religion and religion of upbringing gives 45.7% of our population who were ‘Catholic’, 43.5% who were ‘Protestant, Other Christian or Christian related’ and 1.5% who were from other non-Christian religions.

“The remaining 9.3% of our population, or 177,400 people in Census 2021 neither belonged to nor were brought up in any religion. This group has increased in size from 2011 when 5.6% or 101,200 people were recorded in this way.”

In 2011, the Census recorded 48% of the population as being either Protestant or brought up Protestant, down five percentage points on 2001. The Catholic population that year was 45%, up one percentage point on 2001.

When asked about the census, the Taoiseach told reporters in New York:

“I think we need to be very careful about the demographics as the sensitive issue in terms of the evolution of relationships on the island of Ireland and between Britain and Ireland.”

He called the figures “interesting”, stating that what it points for him is the growth of neither identity or neither religious affiliation.

“I detect a genuine sense that people want the Good Friday Agreement to work, a lot of people in Northern Ireland want to institutions back and in our discussions with the British Prime Minister at the weekend we both agreed that the Assembly should be restored as quickly as possible, that the Assembly is restored as quickly as possible and in the recent elections for the Assembly it was very clear that the public in Northern Ireland want their politicians back at their desks, they want them working to alleviate pressures that are on households in Northern Ireland right now in respect of cost of living – and there’s funding available and allocated to relieve those pressures,” said the Taoiseach.

“So I think there’s a huge move and pressure to get the Executive back and the Assembly back, then politics will evolve, but I think we need to see politics working in the first instance and the recent Assembly elections point to the changing approaches people are taking, both in terms of the centreground parties, the Alliance in particular is illustrative of that.”

Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said the results of the census clearly indicate that historic and irreversible change is underway.

“There is no doubt change is under way and irreversible. How that change is shaped moving forward requires maturity to take the challenges which face our society,” Finucane said.

“We can all be part of shaping a better future – new constitutional future and a new Ireland,” he said. 

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

“A period of planning is critical. That planning and dialogue and engagement needs to happen now, and it must include people from all backgrounds and communities.

“The partition of Ireland has been a failure. We can build a better future together, for every person who lives on this island.”

In contrast to Finucane’s comments, the DUP’s Stormont Assembly member Philip Brett warned against “lazy analysis” linking religious affiliation with public opinion on constitutional change. 

Brett said the census should not be interpreted as a “mini-referendum” on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. 

“The census publication should be about investment and shaping the public services that Northern Ireland needs in the future rather than a border poll or a sectarian headcount.

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

Nuala McAllister, of the cross-community Alliance Party, highlighted the growth in the number of people not identifying with any religion. 

“It’s really important that right now it’s not about keeping one particular people in the majority, but rather creating a shared future that reflects the diversity and vibrancy of what Northern Ireland actually is,” the MLA told Radio Ulster. 

Passports

The 2021 Census also asked participants about the passport they hold.

It found a decrease in UK passports and significant increase in Irish passports, though UK passports still outnumber Irish ones.

“Over the last decade the number of people holding a UK passport, either solely or jointly, has decreased from 1,070,400 in 2011 to 1,000,200 in 2021,” the bulletin said.

“The number of people holding an Ireland passport, either solely or jointly, has increased from 375,800 in 2011 to 614,300 in 2021.

“This is consistent with information from the Department for Foreign Affairs (Ireland) on the increased demand for Ireland passports from people living in Northern Ireland.”

In relation to passports, the census also found that: 

  • 52.6% of usual residents (just over one million people) in Northern Ireland held a UK passport as either their sole passport or along with a passport for another country.
  • 32.3% (614,300 people) held an Ireland passport either solely or jointly.
  • 3.9% held a European (non-UK/Ireland) passport and 1.6% held passports from other countries in the world.

National identity

In 2011, the Census included a question on national identity for the first time.

At that time, 40% said they had a British-only national identity, 25% said they had an Irish-only identity and 21% saw their identity as being only Northern Irish.

In the 2021 Census, 31.9% described themselves as British-only, 29.1% as Irish only, and 19.8% as Northern Irish only.

“The number of people who are ‘British only’ is down from 722,400 in 2011 to 606,300 in 2021,” a statistical bulletin said.

“This fall is counterbalanced, but only partially, by increases in the number of people who identify as ‘British and Northern Irish’, up from 111,700 in 2011 to 151,300 in 2021, and by those who identify as ‘British, Irish and Northern Irish’, up from 18,400 in 2011 to 28,100 in 2021,” it said.

“In contrast, the number of people who are ‘Irish only’ is up from 457,500 in 2011 to 554,400 in 2021.

“There has also been an increase in the number of people who identify as ‘Irish and Northern Irish’, up from 19,100 in 2011 to 33,600 in 2021, and in those who identify as ‘British, Irish and Northern Irish’ up from 18,400 in 2011 to 28,100 in 2021.

“The number of people who were recorded as ‘Northern Irish only’ is broadly stable – standing at 379,300 people in 2011 and 376,400 people in 2021.

“However the total number of people identifying as either ‘British and Northern Irish’ or ‘Irish and Northern Irish’ or ‘British, Irish and Northern Irish’ is up from 149,300 people in 2011 to 213,000 people in 2021.”

The first round of figures released from the 2021 Census, published in May, showed that Northern Ireland’s population had risen to a record high of more than 1.9 million people.

Includes reporting by Press Association and Christina Finn in New York

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Lauren Boland

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