A voting majority for Catholics in the North would not happen until after 2050 because their higher fertility rate was gradually falling to the UK norm, British officials told their Irish counterparts during a secret briefing.
Two years after the 1991 census, Department of Foreign Affairs officials called a meeting with their British opposites to discuss the results amid a welter of media coverage about the rising number of Catholics and how it might impact on any push for a united Ireland.
Newly declassified files show a “large delegation” from the British side turned up at the meeting at the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast in April 1993. Irish officials took this as “proof of the seriousness with which the other side views the census and uses to which information from it can be put”.
During the meeting officials from the British delegation disputed media reports that the Catholic population had then reached 43 per cent, saying it was closer to 41.5 per cent. However, this was just a “best estimate” because of problems with the census.
In previous censuses in the North there had been significant numbers of people refusing to co-operate on the question of religion, while 42,000 “had not bothered to complete it” in 1981.
Edgar Jardine, then with the North’s Policy Planning and Research Unit, who later went on to become the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, told officials “Catholic fertility rates were higher than those of the rest of the community” but there were “interesting changes” taking place “in both parts of Ireland” in relation to the total fertility rate of Catholics.
“The net effect of this was a gradual convergence within both parts of Ireland towards the UK and European norm. Obviously there were very clear implications for Northern Ireland should this continue,” Jardine told the officials, according to notes from the meeting. “If it did the prospects for a Catholic majority soon receded.”
Based on a projected net increase of 6,000 Catholics in the North’s population every year, Jardine predicted “it was likely to be 50 years” before their number would match Protestants “and even longer before a voting majority among Catholics emerged”. The latter was only likely to occur “sometime after the year 2050″.
Jardine posited that, even within the situation of X years from now when there is a Catholic majority, this in no way would guarantee a majority for a united Ireland”
In the event it took less than 30 years for the Catholic population to overtake the Protestant one, although it still falls short of a voting majority. Census 2021 figures published last September showed a total of 45.7 per cent of people in the North are either Catholic or from a Catholic background, compared to 43.5 per cent who are Protestant or from other Christian denominations.
The account of the 1993 meeting, which was sent back to the Anglo-Irish division of the Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Dublin, noted that it was “all based on assumptions” that the Catholic birthrate would continue to fall and that inward migration would not be a significant factor.
On voting preferences reflecting religious backgrounds, Mr Jardine pointed to a number of polls which suggested Catholics “demonstrated far less cohesiveness than non-Catholics”.
“This was particularly true when attitudinal surveys asked for reactions on the subject of a united Ireland,” he said according to the file. “While Protestants questioned were, overwhelmingly, unequivocal when this question was posed, Catholics were far more nuanced in their response, with up to one third expressing greater or lesser degree of disfavour.
“Jardine posited that, even within the situation of X years from now when there is a Catholic majority, this in no way would guarantee a majority for a united Ireland.”
The Irish officials concluded: “Not surprisingly the ensuing discussion failed to reach a consensus.”