The latest Northern Ireland census, updated for 2021 and released on Thursday, showed as for the first time in the history of the country the number of Catholics has exceeded that of Protestants: according to the results of the survey, 45.7 per cent of the Northern Irish population is now Catholic – or in any case comes from a Catholic family – while the 43.48 percent are Protestant or of other Christian denominations. In the previous census, in 2011, Protestants were still in the majority: 48 percent against 45 percent for Catholics.
The overcoming of the Catholic population over the Protestant one had been expected for years, it is mainly due to the different birth rates between the two populations and it was clear that it could have happened in this census. However, its official confirmation could be symbolically very important, and make Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom even more precarious.
The Protestant population of Northern Ireland is the one that feels most of the United Kingdom, where Protestantism is by far the prevailing religion: until recent years the “unionists” – as supporters of the link with the United Kingdom are called – they had always been in the majority. Catholics, on the other hand, are largely republicans: in favor of a reunification of Northern Ireland with the rest of Ireland, with a Catholic majority.
The two sides clashed violently for decades in the second half of the twentieth century in the so-called Troubles, a long period of violence between unionists and republicans that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. In 1998 the so-called was signed Good Friday Agreementwhich put an end to the violence and which, among other things, committed the British government to calling a referendum if it ever found the country’s strong support for leaving the UK.
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In reality, this possibility is not yet very close: the percentages of religious affiliation do not necessarily translate into a political preference for the United Kingdom or Ireland. In the last elections, for example, 20 per cent of the voters did not speak on the side of the unionists, nor on that of the nationalist republicans.
Some recent polls have shown that it is above all Northern Irish people under 45 who prefer unification with Ireland (and even with fairly clear margins): in polls that include the whole population, however, unification is supported only by a minority , for several reasons, including taxes and the efficiency of the UK health system.
A separation of Northern Ireland from the UK could take several decades to come, according to some Irish experts, but according to others the process may already be underway. In recent years this has been accelerated after Brexit, the UK’s exit from the European Union, within which it was decided to leave Northern Ireland in the customs union and in the single European market. However, this has meant that all goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain undergo checks and slowdowns, with the result that trade links with the rest of the UK have weakened.
– Read also: Northern Ireland may still exist for a short time