THE gap between the number of Protestants and Catholics is shrinking.
That is the news that emerged from Tuesday’s 2011 Census results, showing that while the Catholic population remained roughly the same, there has been a notable decline in those who describe their identity or upbringing as being Protestant, other Christian, or Christian-related.
However, the Census results will also offer solace to those who fear the Union is under threat, as protests over the removal of the Union Flag from City Hall continue to smoulder.
They reveal that “British only” is the largest single national identity group in the Province, by a big margin.
Forty per cent of Ulstermen and women described themselves as such – far ahead of “Irish only” (25 per cent) and “Northern Irish only” (21 per cent).
It is the first time the question of national identity has been asked in the Northern Irish Census, making the results the most definitive, reliable gauge of nationality ever recorded in the Province.
Respondents could also tick more than one box, and when this is taken into account, 48 per cent of respondents had said they consider Britishness as at least part of their identity.
The Census was carried out nationwide in 2011, and the latest batch of results were unveiled yesterday morning, although some data - such as the fact Ulster’s population rose from 1.68m to 1.81m between 2001 and 2011 - had been released earlier in the year.
Returning to the question of the Catholic-Protestant split, the 2011 Census asked householders what religion they were.
Of these, 41 per cent said Catholic (up from 40 per cent in 2001), while 42 per cent said they are Protestant, other Christian or part of a Christian-related denomination (down from 46 per cent in 2001).
However, seven per cent did not state a religion, so they were asked how they were brought up instead.
By combining the responses to that question with the results above, those behind the Census arrived at the following figures.
Those who were either raised as or still consider themselves Catholic was 45 per cent (up from 44 per cent a decade ago). Meanwhile those who were either raised as or still consider themselves Protestant, Christian or belonging to a Christian-related group were 48 per cent of the total population (down from 53 per cent a decade ago).
In 1926 (the survey closest to the time of partition) those registered as Catholic and those registered as Protestant/other was around 33 per cent to 67 per cent.
These figures remained much the same even in the 1961 Census, half a century ago.
Asked about the apparent Protestant decline Robert Beatty, head of Census for the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, told assembled journalists: “If you look at the 2001 Census, and the age distribution, the Protestant community in 2001 had an older age profile.
“If you apply the age-specific mortality rates to the 2001 data, you’d expect more Protestants to die.”
Asked to explain this further, he said: “The simplest way to put it would be in the 1920s, 1930s, the Protestant population was approximately twice the size of the Catholic population.
“Accordingly there were many more Protestant births in the 1920s and ‘30s than there were Catholic births. These people now are aged 75 and over. Therefore we do see now that, among those 75 and over, the Protestant population roughly is two to one compared to the Catholic population.
“This leads to Protestant deaths each year roughly being double that of Catholic deaths.”
He said given the number of deaths in Northern Ireland, that is likely to close the gap by about 50,000 over 10 years.
That, in combination with Catholics’ historically higher birth rates (which have resulted in a slight Catholic majority in schools now), have helped narrow the gap between the populations.
Meanwhile, the number of residents either giving “no religion” or refusing to state one stood at 17 per cent – up from 14 per cent in 2001.
And those giving “no religion” as their upbringing had risen to close to six per cent, up from just under three per cent a decade before.
Those responding to the survey with “none/not stated”, tended to be in more traditionally Protestant areas such as north Down.
Dr Ian Shuttleworth, senior lecturer at Queen’s specialising in social geography, said the growth of “no religion” respondents in these areas does not necessarily mean they are Protestants, and more research needs to be done.
In addition to religion and national identity, the figures (rounded here) reveal a wealth of information about the age, health and jobs of Northern Ireland’s modern population – found across these two pages.