Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. Is Irish unification on the horizon?
The first round of the 2021 Northern Irish census results were released on Sept. 22, and it produced a shocker: Catholics now outnumber Protestants for the first time since the Northern Irish state was founded 101 years ago.
Census discoveries around religious adherence are commonly newsworthy, but in Northern Ireland they also have structural relevance. Since its founding, Northern Ireland’s political conversation has been inescapably framed around its religious divide. Its borders were drawn with the intention of maintaining a “permanent,” roughly two-to-one Protestant majority.
The question of Irish unity—that is, the creation of one state with the Republic of Ireland in the south—is never far from the surface in Northern Ireland.
Ten years ago, at the last census, 45.1 percent of the population identified as Catholic. That number has now risen to 45.7 percent, while the Protestant population fell to 43.5 percent. A subsequent analysis found that the only area in Northern Ireland where Protestants still outnumber Catholics two to one is a small section east of Belfast.
Just below those top-line figures on religious affiliation, significant changes in national identity also become clear—29 percent of the Northern Irish population now see themselves exclusively as Irish. This is just three points behind the 32 percent who consider themselves British, which reflects a substantial drop from the 40 percent who did so just a decade ago.
The question of Irish unity—that is, the creation of one state with the Republic of Ireland in the south—is never far from the surface in Northern Ireland, and these shifts suggest that it is not a question of whether a referendum on that question will be held, but when.
But while it is broadly the case that religious identification maps political affiliation—that is, Protestants tend to be Unionists and Catholics tend to be Nationalists—nuance upsets easy narratives. The proportion of Northern Irish Catholics who express a preference for a united Ireland has waxed and waned over the decades, never rising above 60 percent and falling as low as 46 percent in 2002.
The proportion of Northern Irish Catholics who express a preference for a united Ireland has waxed and waned over the decades, never rising above 60 percent and falling as low as 46 percent in 2002.
Numbers aside, the simple Catholic-Protestant binary presented in the media bears little relationship to the reality on the ground. Approaching Northern Irish society purely through the lens of religious identity or in terms of the Irish tricolor and the British Union Jack can obscure interesting developments that do not fit within that simple frame. The attentive can draw out many other interesting data points from the latest census, like evidence of a mini baby boom that followed the 2008 financial crash.
The census also suggests surprising ways Northern Irish society is changing. It revealed that despite the political relevance of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, Irish is actually rarely spoken. In rural Mid Ulster, one of the “most Catholic” regions of Northern Ireland, more people speak the East Timorese language, Tetun, than Gaeilge. Immigrant communities will surely play a decisive role in determining the future of the region, but there has been a surprising lack of attention to how they relate toward the longstanding identity questions that dominate Northern Irish politics.
Behind the photo-finish race for statistical sectarian supremacy, the most dramatic shift in religious identity within Northern Ireland is the rise of the “nones,” that sector of the population that declares either no religious identity or refuses to offer information on it. Thirty years ago, “nones” represented 4 percent of the population. Today they are 17 percent. Whether this population of nones will support closer ties with the Irish republic remains to be seen.
Apart entirely from Reformation legacies, arguably the most significant factor in the shifts identified in the 2021 census has been the influence of Brexit. There is no plausible demographic or ecclesiological explanation for a spike in the number of Northern Irish people bearing Irish passports—they rose from 375,800 in 2011 to 614,300 in 2021—but for the fact that the United Kingdom has left the European Union (although as one wag has pointed out, the Irish passport is also 20 pounds cheaper).
Behind the photo-finish race for statistical sectarian supremacy, the most dramatic shift in religious identity within Northern Ireland is the rise of the “nones.”
Everyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to an Irish passport, regardless of their religious affiliation or position on the constitutional question as far as the republic is concerned, and both U.K. and Republic of Ireland passports can be held simultaneously. But with a harp on the front cover instead of the royal seal, an Irish passport entitles the bearer freedom of travel across the continent of Europe, a freedom now denied U.K. passport holders and a value appreciated among members of both Northern Ireland’s Unionist and Nationalist communities.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Trevor Morrow, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said the news of the end of Protestant Northern Ireland’s “permanent” majority has not been the source of any great dismay in the Protestant community. Dr. Morrow has long been involved in efforts to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
“Things have changed,” he said, explaining that the desire for a de facto connection between Protestantism and the Northern Irish State has evaporated. This is, however, a decisive moment in the history of Unionism, which he argues has been founded on two principles that no longer apply: the risk of overbearing influence from the Roman Catholic society of the “south” and the economic superiority of the “north.”
Whatever else can be said about contemporary Ireland, it cannot be argued that its Catholic bishops remain influential. And by practically every contemporary measure, the Republic of Ireland has become a more dynamic economic entity than Northern Ireland.
Without dramatic adaptations to respond to these changed circumstances, it is hard to imagine Unionism as it has existed persisting over the medium term. Unionists can no longer use those arguments, so as Dr. Morrow asks, what are the implications for a different kind of Ireland in the coming decades?
Crawford Gribben is a professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast and the recent author of The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland. The census results indicate, he suspects, “a weird moment” in Northern Irish history. Roman Catholic voters retain a Catholic identity but are willing to vote for parties like Sinn Féin that increasingly do not reflect Catholic teaching on matters like sexual ethics or the right to life. And Protestant voters seem more ready to abandon their Protestant identity, leaving church attendance behind and embracing agnosticism, but continue to support a more intensely traditional political vision represented by parties like the Democratic Unionists.
While the headline results of the census did not surprise him, Dr. Gribben said he has no idea how the tensions inherent in those positions will be navigated by the two main communities in the near term.
The fact that in Northern Ireland there are now more people who tick “Catholic” than “Protestant” is part of a continuing movement toward a united Ireland. Young people graduating from college today in the north have no memory of “The Troubles” that may have encouraged their parents to the political extremes. But how reunification takes practical shape—for example, how to deal with radically different health care systems or reconcile contrasting approaches to funding local government services—will be a far more complex process than anything we can infer from these bare statistics.
This “weird moment” in Northern Ireland could become very interesting.