The Cadogan Group


Sense of the Census



The following article by Graham Gudgin appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on December 20, 2002.

Although many people dislike sectarian head-counts, official estimates of the numbers of Catholics and Protestants inevitably play an important role in Northern Ireland’s politics. Since David Trimble hopes for a border poll on the day of the next Assembly elections, and the future strategies of the main parties depended on the numbers, it is not surprising that yesterday’s results from the 2001 census were so eagerly awaited.

A series of writers, commentators and politicians, mainly from the nationalist end of the political spectrum, have been speculating for weeks that the Census would reveal that catholics comprise 46% or 47% of Northern Ireland’s population. Sinn Fein spokesmen were predicting in Monday’s Belfast Telegraph that the proportion of Protestants would fall below half.

There was no statistical basis for these confident predictions. Perfectly sound government surveys indicated much lower figures, but the predictions became more confident with repetition and may have been inspired by Irish government estimates. Although most unionist politicians appeared reasonably relaxed, some began to panic last weekend when further headlines again trumpeted the 46% prediction.

As we now know from yesterday’s census results, the Catholic percentage is well below all of these predictions. Those describing themselves as Catholics, in answer to the religion question, comprise 40% of the population. However around one in seven people either declined to answer the religion question or said they had no religion. The evidence is that these were very largely from Protestant areas. It seems that Catholics may have been much more anxious than Protestants to declare their religion this time.

A new question in the census provided the first official estimate of people’s community background, irrespective of whether or not they profess any religious belief. Using this information the census revealed that 43.8% have a catholic community background. Another 53.1% had a protestant community background. Finally, 3% had backgrounds in other religions or in none. Most of the latter groups live in areas, which are pre-dominantly protestant.

What does all of this tell those who closely watch the political balance within Northern Ireland? Firstly, it shows that the Catholic population has continued to grow faster than those of Protestants and others.  The best estimate from the previous census, in 1991, was that Catholics comprised 42% of the population. While the increase up to 2001 was less than many nationalists hoped or expected, it was still substantial.

Secondly, there has been a net out-migration of Protestants since 1991, amounting to around 1,600 each year. Among Catholics the reverse was true, with an average net in-migration of around 700 a year. This added a half of one percent to the overall Catholic proportion.

Even so, Protestants still form a substantial majority, and the gap between Catholics and all non-Catholics remains very wide. Furthermore this gap is almost certainly wider among those of voting age. Figures on the age-profile of each community will not be available until next Spring, but good estimates can be produced based on probable survival of those included in the last census.

These strongly suggest that 41% of the population of voting age in 2001 had a Catholic background. Since recent polls tell us that three-quarters of those Catholics expressing an opinion support a united Ireland, this means that the likely overall level of support for a united Ireland in a border poll would be around one third.

It is now also possible to predict how the gap might narrow in future. Since virtually all of those old enough to vote in 2021 have already been born, we need no assumptions about future birth rates. The prediction for 2001 is that 46% of the population of voting age will be Catholic. If the current political preferences remained unchanged, support for a united Ireland would have risen, but only to 37%.

Of course, the future is far from certain, and unpredictable migration patterns could easily change these estimates. One new and unpredictable factor is the number of immigrants from Eastern Europe after border controls are relaxed in 2004. Another is the future number of asylum seekers.

Beyond 2021, much also depends on future birth rates. Information currently available from the 1991 census, and from the annual school enrolment survey, suggests that the Catholic proportion of the population peaked among those born in the early 1980s. These young people are now mainly of secondary school age. In the secondary schools the Catholic share of enrolments is 51.5%. Birth rates have however been gently converging since the 1980’s, and in the primary schools the Catholic percentage is very close to half.

The implications of these trends are quite dramatic. If catholic and protestant birth rates continue to converge at current rates, the catholic percentage in the primary schools will soon fall back below 50%. In this case there will never be a Catholic majority, and the catholic population will peak at little over 47%. If, as in Quebec or southern Europe, catholic birth rates fall below those of Protestants, the peak will be lower.

Nationalist expectations of a future Catholic majority have risen so high that it will take more than a single census to bring them back down to earth. Sooner or later though, there will have to be a re-assessment. At this point, is it too much to hope that we can begin to forge a genuine settlement between the two communities about the future of the narrow ground that is Northern Ireland?