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Catholics outnumber Protestants for first time in Northern Ireland 

The census results are another blow to the unionist cause just months after a historic nationalist election victory.

(CN) — Census results released on Thursday in the United Kingdom have revealed that Northern Ireland’s Catholic population now outnumbers the Protestant community for the first time in the country’s 101-year history.

According to the data collected last year nationwide, 45.7% of Northern Ireland’s population are Catholic or have a Catholic background. This compares to 43.4% stating they are Protestant or from a Protestant background.

The results are historically significant and indicate the rapidly changing nature of Northern Ireland’s society. The nation was created by the British government in 1921 by partitioning Ireland in order to establish a Protestant majority in the north of the island.

The economic and political dominance of the British Protestant community over the Irish Catholic community eventually led to the breakdown of social relations and the eruption of sectarian violence. More than 3,500 people are estimated to have been killed during the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles.

Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist communities have been committed to peaceful resolution of the territory's status since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which created a range of democratic power-sharing institutions. Until elections earlier this year, unionist political parties had continued to top every poll held in Northern Ireland. However the victory of pro-Irish unification Sinn Féin in May is seen as a historic turning point in Northern Ireland’s politics – particularly as the party also has a clear lead in polling in the Republic of Ireland.

The demographic shift indicated by the Census results will increase anxiety among the unionist community over the future of Northern Ireland, and is likely to compound the psychological blow of a nationalist first minster-elect.

But it is not just demographically and politically that the territory appears to be moving towards the Irish Republic – there has also been an economic shift. The outcome of Brexit has left Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to customs arrangements, with checks on some goods now taking place between Great Britain and the island of Ireland.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland support the new customs arrangements. But they are bitterly opposed by unionist politicians, with the hardline Democratic Unionist Party collapsing Northern Ireland’s delicate peacetime power-sharing institutions until the arrangements are scrapped. As a result, the territory has now been without governance for seven months.

The crisis in Northern Ireland’s governance was a key issue discussed by U.S. President Joe Biden and new British Prime Minister Liz Truss during their first bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this week. Biden, who claims Irish Catholic heritage, has a key interest in the issue, while the United States is a guarantor of Northern Ireland’s peace agreement.

The president has been publicly critical of the British government’s threats to unilaterally override the Brexit treaty signed with the European Union. The U.K. intends to pass legislation to abandon customs checks and meet unionist demands. U.S. politicians have repeatedly stated that Britain can give up on hopes of a trade deal with the U.S. if it fails to act as a fair arbiter in the crisis. A U.S. trade deal was frequently cited by Brexit supporters as a key benefit of leaving the EU. However, this week Truss admitted that no trade talks were planned in the foreseeable future.

The meeting between Truss and Biden appeared to produce a new deadline for resolution of the Northern Ireland crisis. Previously, political parties had been given until Oct. 28 to resolve the impasse and restore power sharing. However, this now appears to have been moved to April 2023. It is no coincidence that Biden plans to visit Northern Ireland around this time to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the peace agreement being signed.

Under current legislation, new elections in Northern Ireland must be called if parties fail to restore governance by the October deadline. It would therefore require the U.K.’s Parliament to pass a fresh law in order to prevent a winter election – which is undesired on all sides – from taking place.

The stalemate remains a tough nut to crack with all sides in the standoff dug-in. Although Truss may be willing and able to compromise, she knows a hard line on Brexit remains her best means of keeping her party united, at a time when clear divisions are emerging.

In addition, the demographic shift is a blow for unionist politicians, coming at a time in which they need to project strength in negotiations. The very purpose of Northern Ireland was to retain Protestant control over the north of the island of Ireland. With Catholics now outnumbering Protestants, the apparent raison d'être of the territory is gone.

But despite the shift appearing ominous for the cause of unionism, there are also reasons to believe that the Catholic-Protestant divide is no longer so relevant in modern Northern Ireland. On the key question of political status, the census results are more ambiguous. Thirty-two percent described themselves as solely British and 29% as solely Irish, with a further 20% describing themselves as solely Northern Irish.

The emergence of Northern Irish as a common identifier is a clear signal of reduced sectarian attitudes towards the issue, particularly among the young, as well as a detachment of religious views from political outlook. The results here indicate that while a so-called border poll – a referendum on Irish unity – is becoming more likely, it remains somewhat unlikely to produce a firmly decisive result.

In addition, the increasing secularism of the population is significant. Seventeen percent of Northern Ireland’s population now describe themselves as being of no religion – a big jump from 10% back in 2011. Secularism is also particularly common among the young, who are the main drivers of the shift. The data supports the view that the younger generation regard the debate over Northern Ireland’s status as a civil and political question, rather than pertaining to religious identity.

Such a shift is equally noticeable among Northern Ireland’s political parties. The new generation of Sinn Féin’s leadership have proved themselves willing to be far more critical of the Catholic Church’s historic influence over Ireland. Equally, public schisms between the Democratic Unionist Party and the Free Presbyterian Church – traditionally sister organizations both founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley – have become more common in recent years.

In short, Northern Ireland’s complicated and sensitive politics are increasingly hard to simply map onto religious identity. Though the demographic shift announced this week is hugely significant in terms of future political direction, it has also been a long time coming. The more uncertain decline of sectarianism is perhaps of greater importance, as it points towards a polity that can maintain cross-community relations and prevent a return to violence.

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