There were renewed calls on Thursday to plan a referendum on Irish unity following the release of census results which revealed that Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in its history.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said the figures were “another clear sign that historic change is happening across this island” and was “irreversible”.
He repeated his party’s call for the government to establish a citizens’ assembly to plan for a possible Border review, saying “planning and dialogue and engagement need to happen now, and it must include people from all backgrounds and communities”.
However, unionist politicians played down the figures, warning against “simplistic and lazy” conclusions based on religious head counts and stressing that political views could not be extrapolated from religious loyalties.
According to the census, people from a Catholic background now account for 45.7 per cent of the North’s population while 43.5 per cent are Protestant. Another 1.5 percent belong to other non-Christian religions and 9.3 percent have no religion.
When asked about national identity, the percentage of people who said they were British fell from around 40 per cent to 32 per cent, while those who said they were only Irish increased from 25 per cent to 29 per cent. Around 20 per cent said they were only in Northern Ireland.
The census also showed a dramatic Brexit-related increase in the number of Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland, where a third of people now hold an Irish passport.
The leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, said it was a “watershed moment in the history of modern Ireland” and the figures show that the North has been “transformed 100 years on from partition”.
He said he hoped “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.”
The secretary of the pro-civic unity group Ireland’s Future, Niall Murphy, said that the Northern Secretary should “now immediately clarify the criteria” that will be used in deciding whether or not to call a Border review. “The difficulty in assessing the significance of the census is that the British secretaries of state, whose statutory responsibility is to call a Border poll when it is likely to be approved by the electorate, have refused to set what the metrics are. [are] as they will make that critical assessment,” he said, adding that “the public deserves certainty on this key issue”.
‘A shared future’
However, DUP Assembly Member Philip Brett said the results show that Northern Ireland now includes three religious minorities and that the number of people voting for Border parties has fallen over the past 20 years. “Instead of focusing on a divisive Border review, we should ensure that Northern Ireland builds first class public services and a real shared future,” he said.
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said the figures show that a “modern, pluralistic society” is developing in Northern Ireland. “While much of the focus will be on the religious headcount, it has been clear for many decades that not all Catholics are nationalists or republicans and not all Protestants vote for unionist parties,” he said.
Dr Ian Shuttleworth, a population geographer at Queen’s University, Belfast, said the census showed “a great deal of diversity and … complexity here”.
He also said it was significant that Northern Ireland was “becoming more diverse in terms of people being born outside these islands”.