For the first time in its century, Northern Ireland has more residents who identify as Catholics than those who call themselves Protestants, a census released Thursday shows.
When Northern Ireland was founded as part of the United Kingdom in 1921, two-thirds of the population were Protestant, in stark contrast to the largely Catholic Irish state to the south.
Some observers believe the shift in religious affiliation could increase support for the region to break with the UK, creating a united Ireland across the island of the same name.
What did the census show?
Data from the 2021 census showed that 45.7% of respondents were Catholic or raised Catholic, compared to 43.5% who identified as Protestant.
The previous census, conducted in 2011, showed that there were more Protestants than Catholics at 48% to 45%.
The shift is one that has long been predicted by demographers, as Catholics tend to be younger and have higher birth rates.
Another census question found that 32% of respondents identified themselves solely as British, down from 40% in 2011. Twenty-nine percent saw themselves as Irish, up 25%, while 20% said they were Northern Irish.
What could the outcome mean for the UK?
The historic shift is likely to lead to more calls for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s reunification with the Republic of Ireland. Such reunification is allowed under the Good Friday Agreement if a majority in Northern Ireland is in favour.
The Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, which spoke of the results of the census as “a clear indication that historic changes are taking place on this island”, is among those demanding a vote on the matter. It has stepped up its calls for a poll, especially since Britain decided to leave the EU in 2016, a move opposed by 56% of Northern Ireland voters.
However, such a poll can only be conducted with the approval of the UK government, and so far surveys have consistently shown that a clear majority of voters want to remain part of the UK.
Sectarian issues played a role in the often violent unrest in the region known as The Troubles, which lasted from the late 1960s to 1998, when the so-called Good Friday Agreement led to a power-sharing government.
More than 3,000 died in the fighting between mostly Catholic Irish nationalist militants seeking a united Ireland, and mostly Protestant pro-British Loyalists and the British Army.
tj/wmr (TBEN, Reuters)