There were fresh calls on Thursday to plan for a referendum on Irish unity following the release of census results which revealed 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 indication that historic change is happening across this island” and was “irreversible”.
He repeated his party’s call for the government to establish a citizen’s assembly to plan for a potential Border poll, saying “planning and dialogue and engagement needs to happen now, and it must include people from all backgrounds and communities”.
However, unionist politicians downplayed the figures, warning against “simplistic and lazy” conclusions based on religious headcount and emphasising political opinions could not be extrapolated from religious allegiance.
According to the census, people from a Catholic background now comprise 45.7 per cent of the North’s population while 43.5 per cent are Protestant. A further 1.5 per cent belong to other, non-Christian religions and 9.3 per cent have no religion.
When asked about national identity, the percentage of people who said they were British fell from about 40 per cent to 32 per cent, while those who said they were Irish only increased from 25 per cent to 29 per cent. About 20 per cent said they were Northern Irish only.
The census also demonstrated a dramatic, Brexit-related increase in the number of Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland, where a third of people now have an Irish passport.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was a “seminal moment in the history of modern Ireland” and the figures showed the North had been “transformed utterly 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 civic pro-unity group Ireland’s Future, Niall Murphy, said the Northern Secretary should “now immediately clarify the criteria” which will be used when deciding whether or not to call a Border poll. “The difficulty in assessing the significance of the census is that British secretaries of state, whose statutory responsibility it is to call a Border poll when it is likely to be approved by the electorate, have refused to set out what the metrics [are] by which they will make that crucial assessment,” he said, adding that “the public deserves certainty on this key issue”.
However, DUP Assembly member Philip Brett said the results demonstrated Northern Ireland was now made up of three religious minorities and that over the last 20 years, the number of people voting for Border poll parties has declined. “Rather than focus on a divisive Border poll, we should ensure that Northern Ireland builds first-class public services and a genuine shared future,” he said.
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said the figures showed a “modern, pluralist society” was developing in Northern Ireland. “Whilst much of the focus will be on the religious headcount, it has been obvious 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 “getting more diverse in terms of people being born outside these islands”.