The number of Catholics exceeds that of Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in history | International
Something is stirring in Northern Ireland, but no one dares to stir up the hornet’s nest. The new census published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), with data collected up to March 21, 2021, marks a historic change: for the first time since its creation in 1921, the number of Catholics exceeds that of Protestants in this British territory on the island of Ireland. 45.7% of those surveyed define themselves as Catholic, or raised and educated in a Catholic environment, compared to 43.5% who call themselves Protestant. 10 years ago, in the last census, the distribution already showed a close adjustment, but it was still the reverse: 48% Protestants compared to 45% Catholics. It is relevant, in a geographical and political space in which 1.9 million people live, that 9.3% (about 177,000 citizens) refuse to be pigeonholed in any religious sphere. Historically, Catholicism has always been associated with republican nationalism and its desire to reunite the two Irelands. Protestantism, by contrast, was the religion of British Unionists loyal to the United Kingdom.
The census data represents an added support for Sinn Féin, the party that once represented the political arm of the IRA terrorist organization and that today aspires to concentrate the majority of the progressive vote in Northern Ireland (and in the Republic of Ireland, where it was already the most voted party in the 2020 general elections). In the regional elections last May, its candidate and number two of the formation, Michelle O’Neill, obtained a historic victory. In accordance with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought peace to the troubled region, she was to occupy the position of chief minister, which for more than two decades had been held uninterruptedly by the Democratic Unionist Party ( DUP, in its acronym in English).
“The results of the census are another clear sign of the historical change that is taking place throughout the island, and of the social diversity that enriches us,” said O’Neill, who has maintained a cautious tone since his victory —and before—, conciliatory and institutional, to prevent new sparks from flying in a territory that is still highly flammable. His reaction to the death of Elizabeth II, his friendly and respectful welcome to the new king, Charles III, in Belfast, and his presence at the state funeral last Monday in Westminster Abbey, are gestures of a party that aspires to occupy without friction the sphere of power that he has conquered.
Infighting in unionism
The same does not happen with the unionists, who have kept the institutions of self-government in Northern Ireland blocked since their electoral defeat in May. They lost then because of their internal struggles, which led them to appear divided at the polls, and because of their obstinacy in completely annulling the Northern Ireland Protocol, which London and Brussels signed to complete the Brexit negotiations. They consider that this agreement, which keeps British territory within the EU internal market, was a betrayal of the conservative government of Boris Johnson to unionism. In fact, the current prime minister, Liz Truss, is keeping a law pending in the British Parliament that would annul a large part of the provisions of the protocol. Her willingness to placate part of Northern Ireland runs the risk of increasing tension with the continent, and even provoking a trade war.
Unionism has taken very little time to despise, as irrelevant, the census data, and remember that the number of Catholics has been growing for years, while the vote in favor of unionism (majority, if all its formations are added) remains solid. “Those who translate the new data into a supposed increase in support for the reunification of Ireland only show how sectarian the project they defend is,” said Jim Allister, MP for the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), the split that managed to win the most extreme votes of that political current in the last elections.
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Perhaps more relevant than the fact of religion, which simplifies in a demographic scale the internal tension of a society as complex as the 21st century itself, is that of the passports held by the citizens consulted in the census. The number of Northern Irish people who have applied for a Republic of Ireland passport, and who operate exclusively with that identity document, or share it with the British, has increased dramatically. In 2011 there were just over 375,000 citizens. In 2021, they have risen to 614,000. That is, an increase of 63%. Brexit, rejected by the majority of the Northern Irish in the 2016 referendum (55.8% against, compared to 44.2% in favour), greatly boosted the demand for Irish passports, by all those citizens who did not want to see themselves deprived of community citizenship because of a decision they had rejected. Nearly one in four Northern Irishmen move through life solely on a republic passport.
In the more subjective and intimate space of identity, the number of Northern Ireland citizens who only consider themselves British is now down to 32% (down from 40% a decade ago); those who define themselves exclusively as Irish have risen from 25% to 29%. The key probably lies in the 20% who are comfortable presenting themselves solely as Northern Irish. In the same way that in the Republic of Ireland, despite maintaining the romantic idea of reunification, there are many who view this movement with skepticism, also in Northern Ireland there is a large percentage of inhabitants who feel comfortable with the advantages of both worlds.
The British territory participates in the diversity that the rest of Europe also has. 6.5% of its inhabitants were born outside the United Kingdom or Ireland. Finally, of the total population, 51% are women, compared to 49% men.
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