Society

More Catholics in Northern Ireland than any religions combined for the first time in 160 years, Census says

There are officially more Catholics than for any other religions combined in Northern Ireland for the first time in 160 years, the latest population census shows. Almost one in five don’t have a religion.

Belfast city hall
Belfast City Hall in Northern Ireland | © Humphrey Muleba, 2020

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency published the second phase of its main statistics results for Census 2021, the public consultation launched on October 2021 for a period of 8 weeks that takes place every 10 years.

Results show that the number of Catholics is on the rise and has never been higher in 160 years. A bit more than 805 000 of the 1.9 million usual residents of Northern Ireland are Catholic, or 42 percent of the population up from 40.8 percent in 2011. For the first time since the census started in 1861, Catholics outnumber any other religions combined, which account for another 39 percent of the population in 2021.

On the other hand, the number of Northern Irish Protestants are decreasing.

Only 31 percent of the population says they are part of one of the three main Protestant churches of Northern Ireland (Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland). They were 36 percent in 2021, a decline that has accelerated in past decades.

These new results are also partially due to the fact that more and more people don’t have a religious belonging. People who don’t have any religion account for 19 percent of the population, up from 17 percent in 2011, 14 percent in 2001 and 11 percent in 1991.

Before the 1970s, almost everyone declared a religion, but the census has added a question about the religion of upbringing in 2001, giving a broader view of the religious background of people even if they are not religious. And Catholic background has surpassed Protestant’s in this 2021 Census.

Current religion in Northern Ireland from 1861 to 2021 as percentage of population
Current religion in Northern Ireland from 1861 to 2021 as percentage of population.
Non Roman Catholic Christians used to make the majority of the population but in 2021, Catholicism is more present than any other religions combined (Religion statistics from the 1971 and 1981 Censuses are not shown on this graph due to the impact of civil unrest on Census enumeration) | Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency

42 percent feel at least British, down from 48 percent in 2011

People who are Catholic or who were brought up as Catholic are on the rise, both in relative and absolute terms, with 46 percent of the usual residents who declare themselves as such whereas they were 44 percent in 2001.

On the other hand, people who were raised as Protestant or with non-Catholic Christian background were 44 percent in 2021. A figure continuously decreasing as 53 percent of Northern Ireland, more than half the population, had a Protestant background in 2001.

Created in 1921 after the partition with Southern Ireland, Northern Ireland has been marked by conflicts between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists. But religion is a weaker identifier of society now and being Catholic doesn’t necessarily equates to being an active nationalist. Moreover, people with no religion are nowadays the second largest non-aggregated population group.

In that sense, the census has been looking at national identity since 2011, both the official one and the one residents feel they belong to. It turns out that 42 percent consider themselves at least as British, significantly down from 48 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, 29 percent consider to be Irish only (+4 percentage point to 2011) and 20 percent as Northern Irish only (-1 percentage point).

With the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal that ended thirty years of armed conflict, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can be changed only with the consent of its population via a referendum.

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