Politically-significant Northern Ireland Census starts – but results wont be known for more than a year

Today sees the start of a Census which could have major political implications – but the results are unlikely to be known for about a year and a half.

Monday, 1st March 2021, 12:01 am
Updated Monday, 1st March 2021, 2:04 am
Dr David Marshall and Louise Clarke from NISRA launching the Census campaign in Belfast

From today households will be able to complete their 2021 Census, a once-a-decade government exercise in gathering accurate information on the population.

For decades in Northern Ireland each census has been accompanied by speculation that it might reveal a Catholic majority for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland.

That has not happened, but the Protestant majority has gradually declined and some experts are again predicting that this census, held in Northern Ireland’s centennial year, could produce a result which would have been unthinkable 100 years ago.

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Three years ago, academic Paul Nolan told the BBC that he believed it was likely Catholics will outnumber Protestants by 2021. However, he stressed that it would be a mistake to simply assume that all Catholics are nationalists or vice versa, and that political identity is now more complicated than in the past.

The religion question on the census is one of two questions which those completing the form are not legally obliged to answer. The other question which does not have to be answered relates to sexual orientation.

The census is crucial to helping government decide how and where to allocate resources, and to chart how society is changing.

Census Day is March 21 and for the first time, this year’s Census will be predominantly online and it is expected that the majority of householders will choose to complete their return digitally.

However, about 20% of households – largely selected because of their residents being elderly or because there is poor internet connectivity in their area – will automatically be sent paper forms. However, they can also complete the Census digitally if they wish.

The first results will not be published until next summer, but the religious data is unlikely to be published until the autumn of 2022.

The forms and details of how to complete the Census online should all arrived by Saturday.

It is a legal requirement to fill in the census document – something which Stormont officials estimate takes about 20 minutes – but a decade ago about 300 households refused to do so. Ultimately, none were prosecuted, with a decision by the Public Prosecution Service that it was not in the public interest to do so.

The census is used across government in innumerable ways – including in setting the block grant, the population-based share of government spending which pays for most public services in Northern Ireland.

The census data is also used to decide how much of the UK vaccine supply is made available to Northern Ireland, along with many similar decisions about fairly sharing resources across the UK or within Northern Ireland which are based on population share.

Registrar General Siobhan Carey said: “It is important that everyone takes part in the Census. You don’t have to wait until 21st March, once you receive your Census pack through the post, simply go to census.gov.uk/ni to complete the information for your household.

However, Northern Ireland Humanists are encouraging people who are not in any meaningful sense religious to tick the ‘None’ box for religion.

The organisation argued that the “biased and leading nature of the Census question (‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’) has in the past caused many people who don’t believe in or practise a religion to nonetheless tick a religion box by default”.

They said that was important because Census results are used by government and local authorities to make important policy decisions.

*** For more information and help on how to complete the Census visit census.gov.uk/ni or call the Census contact centre on 0800 328 2021.


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