For the first time in modern Irish history, Catholics outnumbered protestants in Northern Ireland. Ireland was officially partitioned in 1921, which established the Protestant North, which overwhelmingly viewed itself as British and the Catholic South, with a strong sense of Irish Nationalism and independence from British rule.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, brought an end to over 30 years of sectarian violence that killed more than 3,500 people. As such the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can only be changed with the consent of its population.
The 2021 census was published last Thursday and shows 47.5% are Catholic, and 43.5% were Protestant. After Sinn Fein- Irish National party, won the largest parliamentary seats in elections this year the possibility of Irish reunification seems closer than ever.
In Northern Ireland’s 101-year history, Protestants are now in the minority. This decline has been linked to an ageing Protestant population and poorer health outcomes. Contrastingly, Catholics are much younger than their Protestants counterparts, whilst also over the same period, their population has risen by three per cent.
Over the years Northern Ireland has also become a more ethnically diverse country, with immigration from Nigeria and Eastern Europe that may also influence attitudes toward Irish Nationalism or Unionism.
Within both North and South communities, some are Catholic and believe in Irish nationalism, and vice versa with Protestantism.
Deep sectarianism has always plagued Ireland and its citizen's sense of belonging. The Irish question is one that British politicians have always had to tread carefully, given Britain’s conquering and colonisation of Ireland. The growth of Catholic citizens will reunite calls for Ireland to be unified and end that partition.
From the 2021 census, only 31.9% described their national identity as British and 29.1% described themselves as Irish. For those with strong Unionists and Protestant beliefs, they have often relied on the demographic makeup of Northern Ireland as impenetrable, as a way for Northern Ireland to always remain a part of Great Britain.
The new census delivers a mighty blow. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter describes this as Unionists losing their ‘political supremacy’. With an increase in Catholic residents, there once again remains the possibility that Ireland will officially disassociate from Great Britain and become a unified and independent country.
However, some argue that viewing all of Ireland’s problems through the prism of religion remains a crude metric to truly reflect people’s flexibility in political views. Being Protestant or Catholic does not necessarily translate into support for Unionism or Nationalism.
Throughout the years there have been attempts in Ireland to try and bring together both communities and create mixed schools for both Protestant and Unionist children. Many young people also remain indifferent to sectarianism and rather strive to move forward from Ireland’s violent past.
The British government is bound by constitutional law to call a referendum on Irish unity if it believes there has been a significant shift in public opinion- the increased Catholic population may finally be that shift.
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