Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time

Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time

The decennial census of Northern Ireland’s population, conducted by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) for 2021 and published on Thursday 22 September, marks a historic turning point. For the first time in the history of this nation, the United Kingdom, which until the late 1990s was still reeling from an interfaith conflict (“the Troubles”) pitting a Catholic minority against a Protestant majority, Catholics outnumbered Protestants.

In 2021, out of a total population of 1.9 million, 45.7% of Northern Irish people declared themselves Catholic, while 43.5% said they were Protestant and 9.3% had no religion. In 2011, during the previous census, 45.1% of the population said they were Catholic, but 48.4% declared themselves Protestant. When the state of Northern Ireland was created in 1921, leading to the partition of the island of Ireland, about two-thirds of the Northern Irish were of the Protestant faith (Anglican, Presbyterian, etc.).

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“This data is very important. At the time of partition, Northern Ireland was formed from six predominantly Protestant Irish counties. It was designed as a Protestant state for a Protestant people., Clare Rice, a specialist in Northern Irish affairs at the University of Liverpool, recalls. At the time, Protestants on the island, mainly Catholic, were concerned about republican movements rejecting British colonization of Ireland. By helping to create a Northern Irish state, they wanted to protect themselves from what they called a scandal. “The Law of Rome” (The Grip of Catholicism).

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Accelerated secularization

“No one thought then that the majority could be converted to the Catholic side. The latter have long been a discriminated minority [pour l’accès au logement ou aux emplois publics] », adds Claire Rice. In the 1960s and 1970s, Catholics tolerated less discrimination and, in the wake of the emerging movements for civil rights and self-determination, the “Troubles” began. They last for thirty years. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended that, but peace remains fragile, and Brexit has reignited identity tensions between Catholics – who favor the island’s reunification instead – and Protestants, generally “Unists”, who support remaining in the UK.

Census data on identity issues also worries unionists: only 31.86% of Northern Irish people consider themselves British first.

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