The most dramatic result of the Northern Ireland census results released today is simple: Catholics now outnumber Protestants in a part of Britain whose boundaries were drawn in 1921 to ensure an overwhelming Protestant majority.

Beneath that simple headline lies a wealth of other complex information – not least of all encouraging to unionist leaders who have for years failed to understand, much less successfully address, the reasons why. Support for unionist parties has fallen dramatically.


The focus on religious figures frustrates many in Northern Ireland who want to see politics move beyond simple sectarian numbers. But it’s a legitimate focus – even if it needs enough context not to make it out to represent something it doesn’t.

It is impossible to discount the importance of the Catholic majority when Northern Ireland’s boundaries were chosen to prevent this possibility. But it is impossible to understand what this tells us without realizing that religion is no longer the simple marker of constitutional preferences that it did a century ago.


Therefore, even a clear Catholic majority of over 50% (the BBC NI online report initially mistakenly read ‘majority of NI people from a Catholic background’) would not have the constitutional significance – it would not have been what it would have been in 1921. .

Indeed, these figures show that both Catholics and Protestants are minorities – just as in politics where unionists and nationalists are now minorities and the balance of power in between is unaligned. The figures also show that Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly diverse (almost one in ten practice a non-Christian religion) and more secular – those who are non-religious now make up around 20% of the population.


For politicians, the most important religious statistics published today are not those that show an individual’s current religion, but those that show the religion in which they were raised. This is because political debates are not simply about replication or justification by faith, but about communal upbringing as a cipher for possible political ideals.

While current religion shows Catholics at 42.3% and Protestants at 37.3%, including ‘religion upbringing’ reflects the denominational background of 45.7% Catholics to 43.5% Protestants (in 2011, this figure was 48.4% Protestants). , 45.1% were Catholic).


The main reason for this is quite clear. The Protestant population is older, so there are fewer Protestant births and more Protestant d*aths.

Although the religious conversion will be remembered for this census, other figures are more important politically. The census shows that there has been a dramatic increase in Irish passport holders – a third of the population now hold an Irish passport. This is a clear effect of Brexit and as such has limited constitutional significance; Many unionists have taken advantage of their right to an Irish passport simply as a convenience – it says more about their desire to skip long airport queues than how they will vote in a border poll. .

Other figures have little cause for ambiguity. There has been a dramatic decline in those who identify as British – either alone or with other identities; The figure is now 42.8 percent, up from 48.4 percent a decade ago. This makes unambiguously tough reading for unionists.

Those who describe themselves as Irish have risen to 33.3% from 28.4% a decade ago. However, the more ambiguous Northern Irish identity also continued to rise – from 29.4% to 31.5%.

The big obstacle there is not a difference in birth rates or migration, but the Brexit debacle that destabilized the status quo in a way that few of its unionist supporters either understand or acknowledge.

Northern Ireland’s population is changing, and not just in ways that are easy to understand for those obsessed with sectarian headcount. One in 15 people are now born outside the UK and Ireland. In 1851 it was one in a thousand. Islam is now the largest non-Christian faith, with about 0.5% of the population following it.

As sociologist Professor Katie Hayward said this morning ahead of the results: “It’s a complex picture and it will be important not to read any particular political will into any one particular group, especially when it comes to constitutional change. Let’s talk.”

There is a suffocating sectarian reluctance to suggest these findings mean there must be a border poll now, no matter how foolish the assertion is.

Northern Ireland is changing in countless ways, and political ideas that can best adapt to this reality will thrive. Those who want to deny reality will perish.

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