Northern Ireland census: Another psychological blow for unionism

Results will fire up those pushing for a united Ireland poll and dishearten an already insecure unionist population

Northern Ireland has changed.

In 1926, when this brand-new creation held its first census, its population was roughly two-thirds Protestant to one-third Catholic. Now the census held on its 100th anniversary confirmed those old certainties were gone.

The figures published on Thursday showed that, for the first time, Catholics outnumber Protestants as the largest religious grouping in the North. In a state whose boundaries were deliberately drawn to ensure a Protestant majority and, so the theory went, Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, this is highly symbolic.

On BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme on Thursday afternoon, the writer and commentator Malachi O’Doherty explained how this was a “radical, fundamental change to the Northern Ireland I grew up in”.


Throughout the North, Catholics who had experienced discrimination, sectarianism or gerrymandering under what was once, to quote its first prime minister James Craig, “a Protestant government for a Protestant people”, were reflecting in a similar way.

No matter that, in many respects, the census results were merely a reflection of broader societal and political changes which have already been felt in the North, not least the loss of unionism’s overall majority and, in the May Assembly election, the overtaking of the DUP by Sinn Féin to secure the position of both the largest party and first minister.

Viewed within this context, for those in favour of Irish unity, the census results are yet another incremental step along the path to reunification and simply add to the momentum which they argue is already building in that direction. For unionism, it is another psychological blow, a further reminder of the existential crisis it faces and which it has so far failed to effectively address.

Add to this the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol and even the recent death of Queen Elizabeth and it is no wonder unionism feels its security — founded as it was on that solid, two-thirds Protestant majority — is being eroded; it is as if the very foundations on which unionism stands are crumbling at its feet. Yet it remains to be said that nothing is written in stone. If the census results revealed anything, it is that Northern Ireland is changing into a more secular, diverse society in which identity is more fluid than ever before.

In terms of religious allegiance, 17 per cent consider themselves as having no religion, while 9 per cent have no religion and were not brought up in any religion, a trend which — assuming Northern Ireland follows the pattern elsewhere in these islands — will presumably only increase over time. That said, while an increasing number may have no religion it does not mean they shed their British, Irish or Northern Irish identity.

Similarly, although the North still has a striking lack of ethnic diversity, the census also showed change; the percentage of people from ethnic minority groups has doubled (though only to 3.4 per cent) since the last census in 2011, and the number of people living in the North who were born outside the UK and Ireland is now at its highest ever level.

A third of people in the North now have Irish passports — a result of Brexit — and national identity is fluid; 20 per cent regard themselves as Northern Irish only, and approximately a further 20 per cent have multiple identities.

The census results will fire up those pushing for such a plebiscite and dishearten an already insecure unionist population. The battleground between the competing identities will be for the 20 per cent who are neither distinctly British nor Irish, as already is clear from recent election results which broadly reflect this census.

It is on this middle ground where the union with Britain — or indeed a united Ireland — will be won or lost. For unionism, the lesson of the census is that it must broaden its appeal beyond the traditional and religious boundaries — though the narrow ground on which it currently stands outside the Assembly would seem an unlikely starting point for such a reinvention.

But Northern Ireland has changed, and unionism in particular must grapple with these new realities.