When the state was established a century ago, Protestants made up 2/3 of the population.
For the first time, Northern Ireland is more Catholic than Protestant.
Census data released Thursday show that 45.7% of the population of the British state identify as Catholic or having been reared Catholic, topping the 43.5% of the population who identify as Protestant or having been reared as such.
Eleven years ago, Protestants outnumbered Catholics 48% to 45%.
“The shift comes a century after the Northern Ireland state was established with the aim of maintaining a pro-British, Protestant ‘unionist’ majority as a counterweight to the newly independent, predominantly Catholic, Irish state to the south,” said Reuters news agency. “At that time, the population split was roughly two-thirds Protestant to one-third Catholic.”
Another census question found that 32% of respondents identified solely as British, down from 40% in 2011, with 29% seeing themselves as Irish, up from 25%. A further 20% said they were Northern Irish.
Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist political party, has increased calls for a referendum for a united Ireland since Britain’s decision to leave the EU in 2016. The party said that the shift in religious affiliation is a further reason why planning should begin for such a referendum.
“Today’s results are another clear indication that historic change is happening across this island,” said Michelle O’Neill, regional leader of Sinn Fein, which became the largest party in Northern Ireland’s parliament for the first time this year.
But a referendum on Irish unification is at the discretion of the British government, Reuters explained. Opinion polls have consistently shown a clear majority favor remaining part of the UK.
The wire service further pointed out that demographers have long predicted that Catholics, who tend to be younger and have higher birth rates, could become a majority of voters within a generation. That now seems to have come to pass.
It’s a reversal of Britain’s practice in the 17th century of planting Protestants from Scotland and England in the northeastern part of the island to bolster the authority of the Crown.