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Historic census results prompt calls for border poll preparation

The 2021 census shows Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time. Picture by Paul McErlane.
John Manley

THE IRISH government has been urged to intensify planning for constitutional change in the wake of historic census figures that show Catholics in the north outnumber Protestants for the first time.

The official survey, conducted a century after Northern Ireland was created with an in-built Protestant majority, shows Catholics are now the region's largest religious group, representing 45.7 per cent of the population.

The 2021 Census also showed a significant decline in the number of people who describe themselves as British compared to a decade ago, while the proportion of those identifying as Irish increased.

Nationalists have been buoyed by the results, with Sinn Féin MP John Finucane saying they demonstrated that "change is underway and irreversible".

 

Ian Knox cartoon 23/9/22

 

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the census represented a "seminal moment in the history of modern Ireland".

Unionists however played down any direct association between Catholicism and nationalism.

DUP MLA Phillip Brett said it was "simplistic and lazy" to make assumptions about the north's constitutional future based on region's religious breakdown.

His Ulster Unionist counterpart Mike Nesbitt said the figures relating to identity and nationality were "more complex than some like to portray", while Alliance MLA Nuala McAllister highlighted the growth in the number of people not identifying with any religion.

Among the key findings of Census 2021 are:

:: The proportion of Catholics is 45.7 per cent compared to 43.48 per cent Protestant

:: Those identifying as British is 31.9 per cent compared to 29.1 per cent Irish and 19.8 per cent Northern Irish

:: The number of people with Irish passports has risen to 32 per cent compared with 53 per cent UK passport holders

Mr Finucane said the census results were "another clear indication that historic change is happening across this island".

The North Belfast MP called on the Irish government to establish a citizens’ assembly to plan for the possibility of a border poll.

"A period of planning is critical – that planning, and dialogue, and engagement needs to happen now and it must include people from all backgrounds and communities," he said.

Mr Eastwood said the significance of the transformation illustrated by the figures "should not be downplayed or diminished out of fear or insincere politicking".

"I acknowledge that today’s figures may generate feelings of insecurity for some but it is my honest hope that we can all now take a moment of serious and sincere reflection about the scale of change we have experienced and commit to a conversation about the powerful potential for change in the future," he said.

Mr Brett said any calls for a border poll on foot of the figures would be "divisive".

"It should be noted however, that over the last 20 years, the number of people voting for border poll parties has decreased," he said.

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