EU-UK Brexit Brawl: Catholics Outnumber Protestants for First Time in Sectarian Northern Ireland

Belfasts International Wall on Falls Road. On Monday, April 19, 2021, in Belfast, Northern Ireland (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For the first time since the region became self-governing, the number of Catholics has eclipsed the number of Protestants in sectarian Northern Ireland, a shift that may impact Brexit tensions between the UK and EU.

There are now more people from a Catholic background than there are people of a Protestant background in Northern Ireland, census data released on Thursday has revealed.

Since long before the region — which is a full and equal part of the United Kingdom on a par with England, Scotland, and Wales — became largely self-governing in 1921, religious identity has largely been seen as a de facto indicator of sectarian allegiance, with Protestants being seen as largely pro-UK Unionists while Catholics are almost overwhelmingly Irish Nationalists who want to join the remaining 26 Irish counties outside of the United Kingdom.

While the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom has been a battleground of ethnic conflict for around a century now, since the Brexit vote in 2016, it has also served as a major point of contention between the UK and the European Union, with bigwigs in Brussels frequently demanding to have greater powers in Northern Ireland for the sake of appeasing the will of Irish nationalists who are loyal to a nation within the EU.

According to data released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency 45.7 per cent of people in the region identified Catholicism as either being their current religion, or their religion of upbringing, compared to 43.5 per cent of people who described a protestant or other denomination as being their current faith, or the faith they were brought up with.

Just over 9 per cent of respondents to the census — which was conducted in 2021 — described themselves as both having no religion and being brought up with no religion.

Things become more complicated when examining the issue of national identity, with a plurality of 42.8 per cent of respondents replying that they were British on the survey, compared to 33.3 per cent who identified themselves as being Irish.

However, as with the question of Protestant faiths, the prevalence of British identity appears to be trending downwards, with the number of people who identify as being British falling by over 60,000 people since 2011, while the number who identify as Irish has grown by over 100,000 within this same period.

The shift in demographics has already had a significant impact on the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland, with an election earlier this year seeing a nationalist political party — Sinn Féin — winning the most seats in the local legislature out of any other party for the first time ever.

This has seemingly emboldened the separatist aspirations of pro-Irish nationalists in the region, with the party’s all-Ireland leader — who sits as the leader of the opposition in the southern Republic — Mary Lou McDonald, saying she now wants to see a referendum on Irish reunification within the next five years.

However, such a demographic shift is also likely to have serious ramifications for greater UK politics, with the EU taking great interest in the region since Britain left the bloc.

With it being demanded by nationalists in the region that no border — economic or otherwise — is ever put up between the north and south of Ireland, Brussels has managed to wrestle much control of the region away from Britain, with the so-called “Conservative and Unionist Party” even initially agreeing to split the six-county area off from the rest of the UK single market so as to not to jeopardise the integrity of the EU’s internal free trade arrangements.

Attempts by the UK’s new government under Prime Minister Liz Truss to rip up parts of this agreement — titled the Northern Ireland Protocol — have prompted outrage not only from the seats of power within the European Union, but also from Washington D.C., with the country’s democratic government repeatedly threatening to torpedo any prospective free trade agreement between America and Britain should Westminster fail to agree any treaty changes with Brussels beforehand.

Such an extreme position from the U.S. government is unsurprising considering the allegiances the Democratic party has traditionally held with Irish-Americans, with President Joe Biden himself repeatedly identifying himself as being “Irish” in public.

All of these factors are likely to only aggravate already enflamed tensions in the region, which has seen hundreds of years of violence that continued to be widespread until the 1990s.

In particular, Unionists in the region — who have already been put under pressure by political talking heads in London repeatedly abandoning them on a wide variety of issues — have been confronted with the idea of being split off from their own country as a result of demographic shifts, with some worrying that an economic split with the UK implemented by the EU could naturally creep into a major political split, and even Irish Unification.

Protesting such a possibility, the largest pro-British group, the Democratic Unionist Party, has refused to re-enter a power-sharing agreement with nationalists that allow the region to govern itself, demanding that problem of the Northern Ireland Protocol first be solved before any new administration is set up.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has found itself with a strange bedfellow in the EU, with both groups now quietly wanting the UK’s Brexit vote to result in a United Ireland, with the former desiring it for nationalistic reasons, while the latter appears to desire it to show that leaving the ever-more-centralised union will only result in disaster for those who dare to be free.

Such an alliance is particularly ironic considering Sinn Féin’s history, with Mary Lou McDonald once even sharing a stage with arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage during a debate on the EU forcing Ireland to vote again after the country’s population rejected the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty.

Both UKIP and Sinn Féin campaigned against the referendum, with then-party leader Gerry Adams describing it as a “bad treaty”, saying that the Irish public had already rejected the agreement in a previous referendum before the country was ordered by the EU to try again.

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