Catholic majority in Northern Ireland likely by 2021
CATHOLICS could outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland by 2021, a leading academic has suggested.
The 2011 official census figures put the Protestant population at 48 per cent and Catholics at 45 per cent, while more recent figures from 2016 show 44 per cent of working age adults are Catholic and 40 per cent Protestant.
Among schoolchildren, 51 per cent are Catholic and 37 per cent Protestant, while among the over 60s the proportion is reversed, with 57 per cent Protestant and 35 per cent Catholic.
Paul Nolan, an independent researcher, best known for the three Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Reports, told BBC News NI it is likely that by the centenary of the foundation of the state Catholics will outnumber Protestants.
"Three years from now we will end up, I think, in the ironic situation on the centenary of the state where we actually have a state that has a Catholic majority," he said.
He said there is no need for this prediction to cause undue alarm among unionists as being a Catholic does not necessarily mean supporting a united Ireland.
Mr Nolan pointed out that although 45 per cent identified in the 2011 census as being from a Catholic background, only 25 per cent claimed an exclusively Irish identity.
"The future of unionism depends entirely upon one thing - and I mean unionism with a small 'u' - it depends on winning the support of people who do not regard themselves to be unionists with a capital 'U'," he said.
"In other words people who do not identify with the traditional trappings of unionism; people who would give their support for a UK government framework and that's a sizeable proportion of Catholics provided they are not alienated by any form of triumphalism or anything that seems to be a rejection of their cultural identity as nationalists."
He suggested it is likely debate on a future United Ireland would move to whether it might mean "two parliaments - one in Belfast and one in Dublin".
"I think the more that gets unpacked, the more opinion will move back and forward. Its not going to go just in one direction," the academic said
His analysis comes after DUP leader Arlene Foster said she would "probably" leave in the event of a united Ireland.
Party colleague Christopher Stalford said while Ms Foster's views were "reflective of a lot of unionists ( who) feel they would effectively be pushed into the Irish sea", he would not be among any exodus.
"For my part though, I would never leave this island," he said.
"We need to show that you can be British and Irish at the same time."
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said unionists "have to be at home in a new Ireland" and nothing, from the flag to the anthem would be "taboo".