Historic turning point in the UK’s crumbling region – is separation from London ever closer?

For the first time in Northern Ireland, there are more Catholics than Protestants, according to the latest census data. The change came a century after the establishment of the administration in Northern Ireland to maintain a “unionist” pro-British and Protestant majority as a counterweight to the newly independent, Catholic-majority Irish state in the south. At that time, the distribution of the population was about two-thirds Protestants and one-third Catholic.

According to 2021 census data published Thursday, 45.7% of respondents identify themselves as Catholics or Catholics, while 43.5% identify themselves as Protestant.

According to the previous census, a decade ago 48% of Northern Ireland’s population was Protestant – their percentage dropped below 50% for the first time – and Catholics made up 45% of the population.

The confessional division of Northern Ireland dates back to the 17th century, when Protestant settlers from Scotland and England “settled” in the north-east of the island to consolidate the power of the English crown.

Demographers have long expected that Catholics, who tend to be younger and have higher birth rates, could make up the majority of the electorate within a generation.

Irish nationalists Sinn Féin’s victory in the regional elections in May, securing the largest number of seats for the first time, shocked many unionists.

Colom Eastwood, leader of the smaller and moderate Irish Nationalist Party, said on Thursday Change detected in the latest census data

An “epoch-making moment in the history of modern Ireland” should not be underestimated.

Although Catholics tend to vote for Irish nationalist parties and support the cause of a united Ireland, an increase in the Catholic population does not automatically lead to an increase in support for either party. A large minority of Catholic and Protestant voters support the Cross-Communal Alliance, which doubled its seats in the May elections.

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Surveys also show that not all Catholics and Protestants support the prevailing views of a united Ireland in their societies.

Another census question revealed that 43% of people in Northern Ireland identify as British, compared to 48% 10 years ago. 33% consider themselves Irish, compared to 28% also measured 10 years ago.

Another 32% identified themselves as Northern Irish on the census, where they could choose more than one national identity.

Prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, more than 3,000 people died during three decades of fighting between Irish Catholic nationalists – who wanted to create a united Ireland – British Protestant loyalists and primarily the British Army.

Cover image source: Larissa Schwedes / picture alliance via Getty Images

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