Ten years ago, the national census revealed that Protestants still had the numbers over Catholics in Northern Ireland, though the gap was a slim one: 48% to 45%, respectively. Now, that ranking has flipped, per the 2021 demographics poll released Thursday. While the percentage of those who are Catholic (or were brought up Catholic) inched up to 45.7%, that of Protestants/other Christians saw a multi-point drop, down to 43.5%—meaning there are more Catholics than Protestants in the nation for the first time ever, reports the Guardian. Catholics' higher birth rate is cited as being a big driver of the gap closure.
This wasn't a completely unexpected change, based on trends, but the outlet notes it was still a "psychological hit to unionists," who for years had thought that the Protestant majority was fortified. "They have already witnessed the loss of their political supremacy," historian Diarmaid Ferriter says. "Seeing the loss of their numerical supremacy is another blow." Ulster University politics professor Duncan Morrow concurs, noting that when Northern Ireland was formed in 1921, it was purposely "set up to put a protective ring around Protestants," with the region then claiming a two-thirds Protestant majority. "You can't take away from the symbolic significance of this change," he adds. Still, while Sam McBride, an editor with the Belfast Telegraph, concedes this is a "historic shift," he also notes that neither bloc holds a majority, per Sky News.
How this will play out in a possible future referendum on uniting Ireland, which Irish nationalists have been calling for, remains to be seen, per Politico. It's a murky picture, as religion doesn't dictate voting preference as much as it used to—i.e., it can't be expected that all Catholics would automatically vote to join with Ireland proper, nor that all Protestants would fight to stay in the United Kingdom. Where the deciding votes may lie, Morrow tells the Guardian: with centrist voters who feel they're their own entity as Northern Ireland, not part of either the UK or Ireland. However, young people seem to lean most toward joining up with Ireland. "It's a ticking clock," Morrow notes. (Read more Northern Ireland stories.)