Northern Ireland’s Catholics outnumber Protestants for first time since partition

The latest Census figures for Northern Ireland, published today, show that Catholics (45.7%) outnumber Protestants (43.5%) for the first time since the partition of the island of Ireland.

Census 2021 was carried out on March 21, 2021 (Aaron McCracken/PA)

The Census was taken on 21 March last year, the hundredth anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland.

The 2011 Census recorded 48% of the population as being either Protestant or brought up Protestant, down five percentage points on 2001.


Asked to declare their identity fewer people in Northern Ireland said they identify as British-only, 31.86%, down from 40% a decade earlier.

The figure for Irish-only was 29.13% – an increase – and for Northern Irish-only, 19.78%, a slight fall.

In the 2011 Census a decade before the corresponding figures were:

  • British 40%,
  • Irish 25%,
  • Northern Irish 21%.


Today’s Census 2021 figures, tell that 45.7% of the population said they were either Catholic or raised Catholic.

The figures for Protestants (and other Christian faiths) is 43.5%; 1.5% were from other non-Christian religions.

The 2021 Census showed 9.3% of the population as belonging to no religion – up from 5.6% in 2011.

The 2011 Census recorded 48% of the population as being either Protestant or brought up Protestant, down five percentage points on 2001.

The Catholic population stood at 45% in the last census, up one percentage point on 2001.

The publication of the census traditionally prompts debate over what the figures may mean for the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

Some may seek to draw a direct link between the religious breakdown and public opinion on the potential reunification of Ireland.

Critics of using religious affiliation – sometimes called a sectarian headcount – say it is too crude and reductive a way to measure sentiment on the constitutional because being Protestant or Catholic does not always mean their corresponding political affiliations are necessarily unionist or nationalist.

They prefer, instead, to point to census figures on national identity.


The number of people in Northern Ireland with Irish passports rose and that for people with British passports fell.
Irish passport holders rose from 375,800 in 2011 to 614,300 last year.
British passport holders fell from 1.7m in 2011 to just a million last year.


That question was included in the census for the first time in 2011, when 40% said they had a British-only national identity, 25% said they had an Irish-only identity and 21% viewed their identity as being only Northern Irish.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can be changed only with the consent of its population.


Dr David Marshall and Louise Clarke from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Aaron McCracken/PA)


The Northern Ireland Secretary is obliged to call a referendum on Irish unity if he or she believes there has been a shift in public opinion that would indicate a majority in favour of constitutional change.

However, the 1998 peace accord provided no detail on what metrics or criteria should be relied upon to make this judgement call.

The figures on religion and national identity are part of the second round of data being published from Census 2021.

The first tranche of figures, published in May, related to population and household numbers.

It showed that Northern Ireland’s population had risen to a record high of more than 1.9 million.

The second release of figures will also include data on ethnicity, passports held, languages spoken and a range of other demographic statistics.

• Census 2021 was carried out on March 21 2021.



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