Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Census Shows Changing NI

The proportion of Catholics in Northern Ireland has increased in the last decade, according to census figures released yesterday. The census shows that 48.36 per cent of the resident population are either Protestant or brought up Protestant, while over 45 per cent are Catholic or raised Catholic.

The census, which was held in March 2011, recorded a 5 per cent drop in Northern Ireland’s Protestant population from 2001. The proportion of Catholics has risen by one per cent, to 45.14 per cent, fuelling suggestions in some quarters that Catholics could outnumber Protestants within a generation or less.

The fall in the Protestant proportion can be explained by migration and the presence of an older population with a higher mortality rate, Dr Jonny Byrne from the Institute for Research in Social Sciences at the University of Ulster, told the Scotsman.

‘The census confirms the further decline in the Protestant population,’ Dr Byrne said. ‘They are an older population and that age difference is being played out in the findings of the survey.’

The census was conducted by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency on 27 March 2011. The statistics released yesterday provide a wide ranging profile of the Northern Ireland population covering health, housing, educational qualifications, labour market activity and migration but by far the most closely watched findings relate to demography and identity.

Since 2001, the Northern Ireland census has included a question asking what religion a respondent was brought up in. Those who do not state a religious affiliation but who do indicate that they were raised as Catholic or Protestant are reassigned into the appropriate ‘community’ category using answers to this measure.

In the 2011 census, statisticians were unable to designate seven per cent of respondents as Catholic or Protestant, an increase of four per cent compared with the 2001 census. Most of those now designated as having no religion would have previously been classified as Protestant.

For the first time, the Northern Ireland census included a direct question about national identity. Two-fifths (40%) said they had a British only national identity, a quarter (25%) had Irish only and just over a fifth (21%) had a Northern Irish only identity.

‘The most interesting statistic is the huge increase in the proportion saying that they are Northern Irish over the last twenty years,’ said Dr Byrne. Rory McIlroy personifies this ‘young, confident constituency’, he said. ‘He is neither British nor Irish, he is proud to be Northern Irish.’

Dr Byrne believes that the increase in a definably Northern Irish identity poses ‘big political questions’: ‘How do you celebrate being Northern Irish? What does it mean to be Northern Irish? I think it has huge implications for schools, churches, politics, sports.’

‘My fear is that they won’t be given an opportunity to express themselves, they will be dragged back into, ‘Are you British or Irish? Are you Loyalist or Republican.’

The census results come during a difficult period in Northern Ireland, with on-going protests, sparked by a decision to fly the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall on fifteen designated days rather than throughout the year. On Monday night, a loyalist mob firebombed a police car outside the office of Naomi Long, Alliance party MP for East Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s growing Catholic population does not mean that Irish unification is just around the corner. In July, the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that fifty two per cent of Catholics living in Northern Ireland wanted that union to continue. Only 35 per cent wanted a united Ireland.

‘Many Catholics are pro-union,’ Ulster Unionist MLA John McAllister told the Scotsman.‘Their heart might say United Ireland, but their head knows that the best option is to stay in the union.’

Northern Irish Census in Numbers

1.811m: The population of Northern Ireland in March 2011, up 125,600 (7.5 per cent) on a decade earlier.

338,544: the number of respondents aged 16 and over who had achieved Level 4 or higher qualifications (24 per cent). 416,851 had no qualifications.

59: the percentage of people usually resident in Northern Ireland who hold a UK passport. Twenty-one per cent hold an Irish passport; 19 per cent have no passport.

17,700: the number of people who speak Polish, the most prevalent main language other than English (1 per cent).

11: the percentage of usual residents aged three years and over with some ability in Irish in 2011 (compared to 10% in 2001). 8.1 per cent had some ability in Ulster-Scots.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman on Dec 12.

Census Shows Changing NI
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