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New census figures shifting demographics stirs debate on Northern Ireland’s future

Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time ever

For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, new census figures show that Catholics outnumber Protestants.

The results have been described as “a seminal moment” by leaders of Irish republican parties – who favor the reunification of Ireland and draw most of their votes from the Catholic population and have caused disquiet in unionist camps – who want to remain in the United Kingdom and are supported mostly by Protestants.

While most of the island of Ireland gained independence from the UK a century ago, Northern Ireland was carved out in a way that explicitly aimed to maintain a permanent majority of pro-British Protestants.

For some, the new figures are thus another sign on the pathway to a united Ireland.

John Finucane, a prominent member of the leading republican party Sinn Fein, called for preparations for the “possibility of a unity referendum”.

“The partition of Ireland has been a failure. We can build a better future together, for every person who lives on this island,” the MP said upon the announcement of the results.

A peace wall separating Catholic and Protestants.
A peace wall separating Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast [File: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

Complex picture

However, caution is required when interpreting the results and their political applications, Peter McLoughlin, a senior lecturer in political history at Queens University Belfast, told Al Jazeera.

People from a Catholic background are not a majority of the total population, and nor do they all necessarily support a united Ireland.

“While we can say there is a very strong link between religion and political orientation, there are exceptions to the rule on both sides,” McLoughlin said.

Nonetheless, Northern Ireland’s history means that the fact that Catholics are now the larger group is clearly “symbolically and historically important” and will add to unrest among unionist political parties who have seen their position change in years.

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