Northern Ireland news

Ahead of first 2021 census results Brian Feeney predicts there won't be a Catholic majority in the north

The first statistics from the 2021 census are expected in March

THE first results of the 2021 census are expected to emerge in March, however, the much-anticipated data showing the regional religious breakdown may not be published for a further six months.

It has been speculated that the 10-yearly statistics could see Catholics outnumber their Protestant counterparts for the first time. However, commentator and historian Brian Feeney disagrees, saying it would "require a huge jump" for the Catholic population to break the 50 per cent barrier in a survey he characterised as "crude" in its measurement.

The 2011 census, the findings of which were published the following year, showed that the Protestant population had declined to 48 per cent and the Catholic minority had risen to 45 per cent.

It also showed an ageing Protestant community too, with only those over 60 having a significant majority, while the number of Catholic schoolchildren was notably greater than their Protestant counterparts.

In 2018, an academic specialising in monitoring social trends said it was likely that Catholics would outnumber Protestants by 2021.

However, Dr Paul Nolan said unionists need not be too alarmed by his forecast because coming from Catholic or Protestant community background does not necessarily equate with support for Irish unity or remaining in the UK.

Mr Feeney said that while he expected the official statistics to show continued growth in the Catholic population, numbers had not increased at a rate that would see them overtake Protestants.

"Everybody's talking about the possibility of a Catholic majority but I don't think it's likely this time around, as it would require a huge jump from what was recorded in 2011," he said.

"Of course, there will be an increase in the Catholic population proportionately but birthrates have declined in recent years so growth has slowed."

He also noted that a Catholic majority doesn't automatically translate into a nationalist one.

"The fact is that there are a large number of Catholics who would never vote for a unionist party but also would not vote for a united Ireland," he said.

"Their outlook would be based on the fact that they simply don't know what this new Ireland will look like – nobody has yet to define it."

Mr Feeney said the census's "crude measurement" failed to recognise the middle ground, on which he believes a vote for Irish unity would hinge.

He also speculated that as in 2012, the "juicy bits" of data would not be released until later in the year.

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance said a "working timetable" for the census results would be published at the end of this month, providing a schedule for when key statistics will be released throughout the year.

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