This Sunday, April 24, marks 100 years since the Easter Rising in Ireland, when a group of armed rebels seized control of Dublin and declared Ireland a nation in control of its own destiny. It’s fortuitous then, that this Sunday also marks census day 2016, when the people of Ireland once again declare who they are, albeit this time by ticking through 25 boxes.
The information gathered by the Central Statistics Office (C.S.O.) will go to the heart of public policy making and in particular, the question of religion will be closely watched. In the 2011 census, just over 84 percent of people—3.86 million—defined themselves as Roman Catholic, a slight decrease on the 87 percent who did so five years earlier.
The biggest increase was in people describing themselves as Orthodox, while Islam was found to be the biggest non-Christian faith, with 49,200 people. Perhaps the most interesting shift in the last census was the 44 percent increase in the number of people opting to tick the "no religion" box, making them the second largest group in the state, with just under 270,000 people.
While hardly surprising, the increase has put renewed focus on the close relationship between church and state in Ireland, particularly in healthcare and education. Around 90 percent of Irish schools are under Catholic patronage, and a baptism certification is still necessary to secure a place in many publicly funded schools. Recently, the Archbishop of Dublin criticized both parents and priests for the practice of baptizing children to gain entry to schools, and calling for a better judgement method. The practice raises real concerns about equal access for Ireland’s increasingly diverse population.
Significant steps have been made to divest patronage from the church to local parent groups, and the C.S.O. says the 2016 census data will be essential to determine where Ireland’s education system goes from here. It’s for this reason that the C.S.O. came out with very specific guidelines for answering the question of religion this year: answer with what you believe, not what you were brought up with. The guidelines makes sense in a country where the line between church, state and belief is often blurred.
But there was another reason why the guidelines were issued. The recession in Ireland stripped many public bodies of funding for research, and the C.S.O.’s cumbersome public consultation process to create new questions became one casualty. The only new addition is in the category of marital status, to reflect Ireland’s landmark referendum last year to legalize same-sex civil partnership. So on the question of religion, the C.S.O. are stuck with the same format that caused controversy in 2011: “What is your religion?” A list of the five most popular former responses follows, a space to write in a religion if it is not listed and an option for “no religion."
Critics have said that the wording of the question assumes the respondent has a religion and, by putting Roman Catholic as the first possible answer, holds bias in favor Catholicism. A number of campaigns have been created including #timetotickNO, an effort to encourage people to tick "no religion" on census day. The group see the census as an opportunity to decouple the church and state and have launched a social media campaign around the "no religion" box. One wonders how it would go down if Ireland’s Catholic or Muslim population took up a similar campaign.
The C.S.O. has made few predictions, although there are some things they are almost certain of. Despite the mass emigration post-2008, Ireland’s population is increasing. It is also aging, with the average age expected to rise from 36 in the 2011 results. On the question of Ireland’s faith, the results are far less certain, but what is clear is that the census this year will measure belief over religion. And while religion may be public, open to be fought over in public policy and hashtags, belief is still personal.
Rhona Tarrantis America's Irish correspondent.