The preliminary results of the Northern Ireland Census taken in 2021, mostly through online submissions, show that for the first time since the foundation of the state a century ago that people from a Catholic background now constitute the largest religious grouping.
According to the figures published this morning, Catholics now comprise 45.7% of the population of 1.9 million in the six counties compared to 43.48% who identify as Protestant.
This compares to a Protestant, and other religions, majority of 48.4% to 45.1% Catholics or from a Catholic background in 2011.
That of course does not include some 10%, or almost 200,000 people, who chose not to identify with any religion, so it tells us little about the ethnic identification of a significant number who took part in the Census.
A more accurate picture of that, and its possible implications for the future constitutional position of Northern Ireland, might be thought to be found in the response to what ethnic identity people chose.
The new figures show a sharp decline in the number of people identifying as “British,” with the proportion falling from 40% in 2011 to 31.9%. Conversely the numbers identifying as being of Irish ethnicity has risen from 25% to 29.1%. The other main identifier – and of course this excludes the growing number of immigrants in Northern Ireland – were the 19.8% identifying as being “Northern Irish,” a slight decline on the 21% who chose that option in 2011. 8% described themselves as “British and Northern Irish.”
That would mean that there are over 11% of people in Northern Ireland who did not identify with any of the three ethnic identifiers. The figure is in large part, of course, accounted for by increased immigration.
According to the Census, the number of people living in the six counties who were born outside of the state is now 13.5% compared to 11% in 2011. There is simply no way of determining how immigrants might vote in a referendum on Irish unification but there is certainly no proof from electoral or any other sources that they would be more likely to be “nationalists.”
4.6% of respondents said that English was not their main language. Polish remains the other main first language other than English although the numbers claiming to have some proficiency in Irish is now 12.4% compared to 11% in 2011. That will strengthen the case for Acht na Gaeilige, which is one of the few positive things Sinn Féin might actually achieve for their quarter century as part of British rule in Ireland.
Many people will be looking at the Census as support for the early holding of a border poll but they can find little comfort I am afraid. The increase in the number of people identifying as Catholic or as Irish clearly do not correlate.
Many Catholics have obviously deserted the SDLP for the soft unionist Alliance. The only crude overall guide to how people might vote if there was a poll is that 59.7% identify as either British or as Northern-Irish and would therefore clearly not vote for unity.
Sinn Féin, have accepted that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland will only change when there is a majority in favour of that change. They also know that the Good Friday Agreement also sets out in very clear terms that a poll to determine whether there might be a change can only be held when it appears likely to the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”
This Census provides no such indication nor do any of the election results since 1998. In the 1998 Assembly elections, the combined nationalist vote, for all parties who supported Irish unity, was 40%. In May’s Assembly election, that had risen to 40.8%. At that rate, there will be a nationalist majority – in so far as that description any longer applies to the two main parties – by around 2222.
So there is no basis for calling a “border poll.” Furthermore, Sinn Féin knows this, and it knows that it makes absolutely no difference to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland – which they have accepted since the Good Friday Agreement – whether they are the biggest party in Stormont, or indeed whether they become the biggest party in Leinster House.
No more than the fact that Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, was the biggest party and the governing party in the 26 counties for most of the past 100 years. And it would not have made any difference whether at the same time the Nationalist Party or the SDLP had ever been in the same political position with Stormont as Sinn Féin is now.
Those are the facts.