#Census2021: Adding to the count, new census data

Dr Paul Nolan is an independent researcher based in Belfast. He writes on conflict societies, social trends and demography.

The publication of the Census 21 data last year proved to be a watershed moment for Northern Ireland. It showed that on the centenary of the state, a state established to provide the security of built-in majority for unionists, the Catholic population had become larger than the Protestant population.

On 31 May NISRA released a new cache of data which shows how this dynamic between the two communities is likely to take shape in the future. There are of course other identities now in play, adding complexity and unpredictability to the mix, but the main outlines are plain to see.

The census data was collected on one particular day, 21 March 2021, and is therefore a snapshot in time, a frozen moment. To turn that snapshot into a moving picture we need to see how religious identities are distributed across the age cohorts; this allows us to see the patterns of growth and decline. The picture that emerges from the new data is a stark one.

While the overall total for those from a Protestant background is 43.5%, there is a tapering effect as we move down the age cohorts from the oldest to the youngest. Above the age of 65 the Protestant share is 59.2% while the Catholic share is 37.9% (not a huge advance on the 34% it comprised in the first ever Northern Ireland census in 1926).

At the other end of the age spectrum the ratios are transformed. In the 0-14 age cohort Catholics make up 48.7% of the population while Protestants make up just 32.5%. Where is the hinge point? Because the age cohorts are very broad we can only say with certainty that it occurs somewhere in the 40-64 bracket, but extrapolating from the 2011 figures and projecting forward it is likely that the break point is around the age of 48 or 50.

Above that age Protestants make up the larger population; below that age Catholics make up the larger population.

The momentum shown in these figures is broadly consistent with the annual Department of Education School Census which shows that in the 2022/23 intake Catholics make up 50% of the pupil population while Protestants and Others make up the remaining 50%.

Differences in the way in which NISRA and the Department of Education tally up the Other Christian category make it difficult to make exact comparisons (NISRA gives discrete figures for this category but brackets them with Protestants, while the School Census blends them with Others).

The general picture however is clear: over the past decade the Catholic school pupil numbers have consistently hovered around 50% – very close in fact to the mythical 50% plus one – and so the main change has been in the relative strengths of Protestants and Others, with the numbers of Others increasing in proportion to the decline in the number of Protestants.

There is only one way this can go. These children will grow up and the demographic escalator will carry them into adulthood and into the electorate. Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum Protestants will continue to be the larger number in the mortality figures. The religious seesaw is tilting and the direction of the tilt is unmistakable.

That doesn’t mean there is going to be a united Ireland around the corner, or even around the next corner, or the one after that. It is frequently asserted – and almost as frequently forgotten – that just because someone is a Catholic doesn’t mean they are a nationalist, and just because someone identifies with

nationalist culture doesn’t mean they will vote for Irish unity. The new figures from NISRA are studded with the kind of detail that challenges that easy assumption of an overlap of religious and national identities. For example, of those people who self-categorised as British , 56,900 people, or 9.4% of this category were Catholic. This was British Only, a category undiluted by any other identity; if we take in those included British as one part of a hybrid identity the total goes up to 9.8% .

The reverse pattern, Protestants who identify as Irish only, shows a quite different picture. The Irish Only category includes just 16,600 Protestants, or 3.0 % of the total number. If the objective is to persuade Protestants to see themselves as Irish these figures suggest there is a long way to go. To provide some historical perspective, it is interesting to look at how many northern Protestants viewed themselves as Irish before the Troubles.

The key work in this regard is Richard Rose’s Governing Without Consensus. The book was published in 1971 but the field work was done in 1968, and thus captured the moment just before Northern Ireland became convulsed by conflict. Rose interviewed 757 Protestants and 534 Catholics in Northern Ireland, and of the Protestant interviewees 20% saw their identity as primarily Irish, while 39% saw themselves as primarily British. Any assessment of the efficacy of the Provisional IRA campaign would have to take these figures into account.

What then of the Northern Ireland identity, and the constitutional leaning of those with no religion, and those who are classified under Other Religions? The Northern Ireland identity has remained relatively stable from the time of the last census, down from 20.9% to 19.8%. However, it is an identity that has grown in popularity as a ‘partner’ identity: the total number of people identifying as either ‘British and Northern Irish’ or ‘Irish and Northern Irish’ or ‘British, Irish and Northern Irish’ is up from 149,300 people in 2011 to 213,000 people in 2021.

We can never know why people ticked the boxes they did, but it is hard not to believe that this has been a Brexit consequence. At the same time as the NI hybrids increased in number the British Only identity took a drop: from 722,400 in 2011 to 606,300 in 2021.

After the last census there was some excitement about the NI Only Identity since it was the first time it had been offered as a census category (though in fact the NI Life and Times and other social surveys had shown significant numbers identifying with ‘in between’ identities for many years). Various studies were undertaken, most notably by Professor John Garry and Dr Kevin McNicholl at QUB, to discover the make-up of this elusive group of people, but because of the cross tabulations in the new NISRA data we can now see exactly the breakdown in terms of community background.

Catholics make up the larger proportion at 48.3%, almost ten percentage points ahead of Protestants at 38.8%. People who self-categorised as No Religion/ None make up a further 12.1%.

It has been speculated that those with No Religion/None and those from Other Religions may well hold the balance of power in any border poll, that in a 50% plus one situation the casting vote to deliver Irish unity may belong to a Sri Lankan national who has settled in Ahoghill. Maybe so, but these new figures suggest that the constitutional leanings of these groups are more in the direction of British identity. Let’s take those who come from a community

background of No Religion first. Their numbers are considerable: 177,400 or 9.3% of the population. Their strongest identification is with British Only (35.4%), followed by Northern Irish Only (25.6%) and only 7.6% choosing Irish Only. For those from Other Religions the strongest identification (44.7%) was not solely with any form of British or Irish identity, but likely the national identity of their place of origin.

The remainder showed a heavy leaning towards a British identity: British Only at 29.3% was more than three times the percentage who chose Irish Only (8.7%). If it did come down to a border poll it would be unwise therefore to imagine that newcomer communities might tilt the scales in favour of unity.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that NISRA is going to release all the remaining data on 22 June in a form that will allow anyone to build their own data table to explore multiple forms of cross tabulation. The census figures will then be let out to play.


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