More Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland for first time, census finds

Dramatic increase in percentage of people holding an Irish passport solely or jointly since last study in 2011

There are more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time since its creation, according to census results published on Thursday.

The new figures show 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. Some 1.5 per cent come from other non-Christian religions.

The remaining 9.3 per cent of the population — 177,400 people — neither belonged to nor were brought up in any religion; an increase since the last census in 2011 when 5.6 per cent — 101,2000 people — were recorded in this category.

In 2011, 48 per cent of people identified as being either Protestant or from a Protestant background, compared to 45 per cent who were Catholic.


Initial findings from the census, which was carried out on March 21st, 2021, were released in May and showed the North’s population had risen to 1.9 million.

This second set of results, published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, included information on religion, national identity, ethnicity, language and passports.

The results showed a dramatic increase in the percentage of people in Northern Ireland holding an Irish passport solely or jointly since the 2011 census. The number of people holding an Ireland passport solely or jointly rose from 375,800 in 2011 to 614,300 in 2021, an increase of 63.5 per cent. This is consistent with the increased demand for Irish passports since Brexit and means about a third of people in Northern Ireland now hold an Irish passport.

About 500,000 people hold only an Irish passport, and approximately another 100,000 hold it jointly with another passport.

The number of people holding a UK passport solely or jointly decreased slightly from 1.07 million in 2011 to one million in the latest census.

On the question of identity, the percentage of people who said they were British only fell from about 40 per cent to 32 per cent, while those who said they were Irish only increased from 25 per cent to 29 per cent.

The percentage of those who said they were Northern Irish only remained broadly similar, at 20 per cent. The largest multiple identity was in the category “British and Northern Irish”, which rose by 6.2 per cent to 8 per cent.

Proportionally, the fastest-growing group was those of other national identities, which the statisticians said were typically identities from outside the UK and Ireland. This group almost doubled, from 61,900 people in 2011 (3.4 per cent) to 113,400 in 2021 (6 per cent).

The census showed the population of Northern Ireland is becoming more diverse, with 65,600 people — 3.4 per cent — belonging to ethnic minority groups. This is around double the figure in 2011 and four times the figure in 2001. The number of people living in the North who were born outside the UK and Ireland is now at 6.5 per cent, the highest recorded in Northern Ireland.

A total of 4.6 per cent had a main language other than English, the most prevalent being Polish (20,100), Lithuanian (9,000) and Irish (6,000).

The percentage of people with some ability in the Irish language increased from 10.7 per cent in 2011 to 12.4 per cent, as did those with some ability in Ulster Scots, which rose from 8.1 per cent to 10.4 per cent.

The census also showed Northern Ireland’s population is continuing to age. The overall population grew by 5 per cent, but the number of people aged 65 or older grew by nearly 25 per cent.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times