THE proportion of Catholics in Northern Ireland has increased in the last decade, according to census figures released yesterday.
The census shows that 48.36 per cent of the resident population are either Protestant or brought up Protestant, while more than 45 per cent are Catholic or raised Catholic.
The census, held in March 2011, recorded a 5 per cent drop in Northern Ireland’s Protestant population from 2001.
The proportion of Catholics has risen by 1 per cent, to 45.14 per cent, fuelling suggestions in some quarters that Catholics could outnumber Protestants within a generation or less.
The fall in the Protestant proportion can be explained by migration and the presence of an older population with a higher mortality rate, Dr Jonny Byrne from the institute for research in social sciences at the University of Ulster, said.
“The census confirms the further decline in the Protestant population,” he said. “They are an older population and that age difference is being played out in the findings of the survey.”
Since 2001, the Northern Ireland census has included a question asking what religion a respondent was brought up in.
Those who do not state a religious affiliation but who do indicate that they were raised as Catholic or Protestant are reassigned into the appropriate “community” category.
In the 2011 census, statisticians were unable to designate 7 per cent of respondents as Catholic or Protestant, a rise of four percentage points on 2001.
Most of those now designated as having no religion would have previously been classified as Protestant.
For the first time, the Northern Ireland census included a direct question about national identity. Two-fifths (40 per cent) said they had a British-only national identity, a quarter (25 per cent) had Irish-only and just over a fifth (21 per cent) had a Northern Irish-only identity.
Dr Byrne said: “The most interesting statistic is the huge increase in the proportion saying that they are Northern Irish over the last 20 years.”
He said that golfer Rory McIlroy personifies this “young, confident constituency”, adding: “He is neither British nor Irish, he is proud to be Northern Irish.”
Dr Byrne believes that the increase in a definably Northern Irish identity poses “big political questions”.
He said: “How do you celebrate being Northern Irish? What does it mean to be Northern Irish? I think it has huge implications for schools, churches, politics, sports. My fear is that they won’t be given an opportunity to express themselves, they will be dragged back into, ‘Are you British or Irish? Are you Loyalist or Republican’.”
In July, the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 52 per cent of Catholics living in Northern Ireland wanted the union to continue. Only 35 per cent wanted a united Ireland.
• 1.811m The population of Northern Ireland in March 2011, up 125,600 (7.5 per cent) on a decade earlier.
• 59 the percentage of people usually resident in Northern Ireland who hold a UK passport. Some 21 per cent hold a Republic of Ireland passport; 19 per cent have no passport.
• 17,700 the number of people who speak Polish (about 1 per cent), the most prevalent main language other than English.
• 11% of usual residents aged three years and over with some ability in Irish language in 2011 (against 10% in 2001). 8.1 per cent had some ability in Ulster-Scots.
• 338,544 the number of respondents aged 16 and over who had achieved Level 4 or higher qualifications (24 per cent). 416,851 had no qualifications.