It’s difficult to extrapolate, except in the most broad-brush way, from the Northern Ireland 2011 Census to that hoary old question that once mattered more than any other to Northerners: the sectarian headcount – when is it exactly that Catholics will outbreed their Protestant counterparts to the point of voting them into a united Ireland?
Not yet, is the answer, although the shift towards a Catholic majority is continuing apace. But there is, as opinion polls confirm, no reason to believe that a substantial number of Catholics would want to do so anyway.
The figures published yesterday show that the gap between those who describe themselves as Catholic or were brought up as Catholic – 41 per cent and 45 per cent respectively – and those brought up in the Protestant community in its many guises (48 per cent) has declined to three points. (The school census shows a Catholic majority among school-age children).The 2001 census recorded the religious breakdown as 44 per cent Catholic and 53 per cent Protestant. And it’s a far cry from 40 years ago when a mere 31.4 per cent recorded their affiliation as Catholic (though certainly an understatement, as many from both communities refused to declare their allegiance).
What helps to put paid to the traditional headcount rationale, however, is the 2011 census questions, for the first time, on identity. The census found that 40 per cent of the population described themselves uniquely as British, 25 per cent as Irish only, and 21 per cent as only Northern Irish. When we take account of those who volunteered a multiple identity, 48 per cent of the population consider themselves to be wholly or part British, and 28 per cent only said they were wholly or part Irish.
The North’s population has increased to 1.811 million since 2001. That one in five should eschew either identity for “Northern Irishness” suggests perhaps a significant desire in both communities to move beyond old political categories and camps into a new space.