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Catholics overtake Protestants in Northern Ireland for first time, census shows

DUBLIN — Catholics have overtaken Protestants for the first time in Northern Ireland, a demographic milestone likely to intensify political demands for an early referendum on uniting Ireland.

Long-awaited data from Northern Ireland’s 2021 census published Thursday also confirms a Brexit-fueled surge in citizens opting for Irish rather than British citizenship, particularly among younger residents.

The census found that 45.7 percent of residents are Catholic, marginally higher than in the 2011 census, while the Protestant community has declined to just 43.5 percent, five points lower than a decade ago.

Simultaneously, the census found that nearly a third of the population now hold Irish passports, a 63 percent surge recorded largely since Brexit.

Taken together, these figures suggest a shift in Northern Ireland’s population toward greater affinity with the Republic of Ireland and the EU, and away from Britain.

Irish nationalists, rooted almost exclusively within the Catholic community, have demanded a referendum on uniting the two parts of Ireland in response to Brexit, which most Northern Irish voters opposed. The region’s 1998 peace accord, the Good Friday Agreement, commits the British government to call such a referendum if it identifies sufficient public support in Northern Ireland for leaving the U.K. — a condition that the current government says doesn’t yet exist.

Complicating this picture, while opinion polls indicate rising post-Brexit support for Irish unity, they also consistently show a sizable number of Catholics prefer to stay within the U.K., even though they don’t vote for unionists. This means that the changed sectarian arithmetic doesn’t directly translate into a majority for removing Northern Ireland from the U.K.

Still, the findings mark a long-predicted watershed moment. When Northern Ireland was founded a century ago, the goal was to create a new U.K. region with an unassailably pro-British majority — in the words of its first prime minister, James Craig, “a Protestant parliament and Protestant state.”

The first post-partition census, in 1926, confirmed that two-thirds of its people identified as British, and a third as Irish. That sand has steadily shifted under unionist feet in the century since, particularly since the Good Friday accord capped three decades of bloodshed known as “The Troubles.”

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