Dr Paul Nolan is an independent researcher based in Belfast. He writes on conflict societies, social trends and demography.
The first thing to be said about the census results published today is that it is a miracle of sorts that we have them at all. At the beginning of the 2021 the pandemic seemed to make it too difficult for a census to be conducted. The Irish census was pushed back to 2022 and so too was the Scottish census. England and Wales went ahead but while they managed to complete the data collection, the processing has been delayed and the release of datasets on religion, national identity, and ethnicity has been postponed with still no publication date. NISRA has managed to complete on target and with an astonishing 97% completion rate. The fact that 80% of the returns were completed online is also quite remarkable and sets a new benchmark for digital literacy in Northern Ireland.
But on to the results themselves. The media speculation has inevitably been on the ‘football scores’, and that has been the focus for immediate commentary this morning. This year that focus is justified. The 2021 census was conducted exactly 100 years after the creation of the Northern Ireland state, a state that was created on a headcount of religious identities, and on the assumption that a two-to-one inbuilt majority for Protestants would ensure permanent security for its unionist population. This morning’s results then are rich in irony: pleasing for some, bitter for others. Some unionist politicians, like Gregory Campbell, tried to prepare their followers for the shock, but the double whammy of religious and national identity losses must feel heart-sinking. Catholics, at 45.7% of the population, have overtaken Protestants at 43.5%. If you look at those figures along with the school enrolment figures, which for nearly twenty years now has been showing Catholic children as half of school enrolments against one third for Protestants, the direction is unmistakable. There is no going back. The Protestant decline cannot be reversed.
Even more shocking for unionists is the national identity figure. In the centenary year of the state, the numbers choosing a purely British identity are down to 31.9% – less than one third of the population. The percentage is boosted slightly when account is taken of those who claim British identity as one part of a shared identity. British and NI account for 8%, British and Irish only 0.6%, British, Irish and NI 1.5%, and if you add these and other hybrids to the total it brings it up to 42.8%.
There are disappointments too for those hoping for a large jump in Irish identity. It had been speculated that Brexit would boost the Irish identity, and while there has been an increase, it is only from 25.3% to 29.1%. If you were to include the Irish-plus hybrid identities the percentage moves up to 33.3%, exactly one-third of the population. Set against the combined British identity of 42.8% this might give pause for thought to those wanting to see a border poll in the near future.
But if both unionists and nationalists are disappointed (and despite brave faces, they should be) that is because the two frozen identity blocs are melting and we are seeing fluidity in the middle. The hybrid identities, a jumble of Irish/British/Northern Irish/Scottish mixtures (plus Others) has risen to 19.4%. Taken together with the NI Only figure of 19.8%, the total who are moving beyond the solid bloc identities of exclusive British and exclusive Irish is now 39.2%. What we are seeing, in short, is identity innovation. In some ways this was the promise of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement: that people could move beyond their birth identity and make up their own mix. Not either/or, but both/and. And that mix of identity now has to include the 6% of newcomer communities who do not claim either British or Irish identities.
The big changes don’t stop there. Secularisation is the other big story of this census. The number with no current religion is a whopping 17.4%. This is in line with international trends. The 2021 Census in Australia shows 40% with no religion. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted in April 2021 gives the share with no religion as 53% (considerably higher than the 25% in the 2011 census for England and Wales). In the Irish census of 2016 one in ten say they have no religion, making the ‘no religion’ category the second largest category after Catholic (78%). Quite what it means to be a Catholic country following referendums which have voted in huge numbers for divorce, same sex marriage and abortion is a question for another day, but it does suggest that old identity categories are leaky.
Finally – though there’s lots more to come – it should be remembered that the census is not just about religious and political identities. It is the necessary framework for public planning, and in this regard the headline story has to be the growth in the overall population, up to 1,903,175. This represents the highest population ever for the area now known as Northern Ireland. The 1841 pre-famine period peak was 1,649,000, after which there was a steady decline in population down to the 1,236,100 low of the 1891 Census. The first census taken after the creation of the Northern Ireland state was in 1926, and by that time the total had increased only by a fraction, up to 1,256,600. The new 2021 figure represents a 50% increase on the total at the first census. The gradient upward has been steady, but it is not uniform across the age bands. By far the biggest increase has been in the population aged 65 and over: from 101,800 in 1926 to 326,500 today. This is very definitely an ageing society. Indeed, it is expected that within the next ten years there will be more people aged 65 and over than children aged 0 to 14 years. Long term, this is a dependency crisis in the making.
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