Northern Ireland census finds Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time

Results of population survey could increase calls for Irish unity

 A man walks past a Catholic mural in Belfast
The proportion of Northern Irish people identifying as Irish has risen since 2011
(Image credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in what has been described as a “hugely significant and historic moment”.

Results from the 2021 census released yesterday showed that 45.7% of Northern Ireland’s population are Catholic or from a Catholic background, compared with 43.5% from Protestant or other Christian backgrounds.

The census was carried out 100 years after Ireland was partitioned to create a Protestant region in the north committed to union with the UK. At the time of partition, Protestants made up about two-thirds of the population of Northern Ireland and it was expected that they would always constitute the majority.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Therefore, said The Guardian, the new census will “deliver a psychological hit to unionists”, who for decades have relied on a “supposedly impregnable Protestant majority to safeguard Northern Ireland’s position in the UK”.

The “demographic tilt”, as the paper described it, was expected, with higher birth rates among Catholics – who tend to identify as “Irish” while Protestants tend to think of themselves as “British” – closing the gap. In the census, the percentage of people who said they only identified as British sank from about 40% in 2011 (the date of the last census) to 32% in 2021, while those who said they were just Irish increased from 25% to 29%.

Noting that the results come soon after the elections in May in which the nationalist group Sinn Féin became the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time, the FT said the census “could increase calls for a referendum on the region’s constitutional future”.

The Irish Times agreed that the census results are likely to “fire up those pushing for a united Ireland poll and dishearten an already insecure unionist population”.

Enda McClafferty, the BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor, described the census results as a “hugely significant and historic moment”, adding that “those pushing for a border poll and united Ireland” would be “energised” by the figures.

But Irish unity may take a back seat as the region tackles the cost-of-living crisis. Before May’s assembly election, the deputy leader of Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neill, said that people in Northern Ireland were not “waking up” thinking about Irish unity but rather “the pressure they feel right now” over rising prices.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.