Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

Dublin, (EFE).- Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time since the British province was created 101 years ago, according to the 2021 census.

The survey found that 45.7% of the population living in the region were Catholic or grew up in a Catholic context, 43.5% declared themselves Protestant, while 9.3% did not belong to either of these two groups.

The census comes five months after Sinn Féin, the main representative of the Catholic-nationalist community, won regional elections for the first time in its history, prompting proposals to call a referendum on reunification from Ireland. .

A century of excitement

After the War of Independence (1919–1921), the United Kingdom divided the island into two jurisdictions, the Province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, leading to nearly a century of tension and armed conflict between the two communities.

The Good Friday Peace Agreement (1998) ended the conflict, but since then the Protestant-Unionist population has steadily declined, from 53% in 2001 to 45.7% in 2021.

In contrast, Catholics increased by one point between 2001 and 2011, to 45%, and have gained momentum in the past decade, to a current 45.7%.

Archive footage of unionist protests in Belfast in January 2013. EFE/Paul Faith

Irish identity and the referendum

This latest census also addressed the issue of national identity with 31.9% of the population identifying themselves as ‘British only’, while 8% chose the option ‘British and Northern Irish’.

In this sense, 29.1% of the population identified themselves as “Irish only”, compared to 19.8% who filled in the “Northern Irish only” box.

This distinction is important because the strong relationship between Irish identity and Catholicism does not mean that the majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland will automatically lead to reconciliation.

Observers note that a significant number of Protestant republican heroes, such as Wolf Tone or Roger Casement, appear in Irish history, while sections of Northern Irish Catholics doubted or simply opposed reunification.

“The big difference is that the demand for a referendum on this issue will increase. Not just because of demographics between Catholics and Protestants, but because of Brexit,” expert Brian Feeney told Newstalk Radio today.

The UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), rejected by a majority of Northern Irish voters in a 2016 referendum, has had a “huge impact” and “reinforced divisions” in the region, Feeney noted.

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