The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency has today released the results of the 2021 census. As widely anticipated, it shows for the first time that Northern Ireland has more Catholics (45.7%) than Protestants (43.48%) (See update below).
This is inevitably a historic moment given that Northern Ireland was founded on the basis of a Protestant majority. The symbolism is profoundly unhelpful to a British government which is seeking to legitimise a hardline sovereigntist approach to the Northern Ireland protocol
Nevertheless, to a great extent it only confirms what we already know from election results – that no community in Northern Ireland has an outright majority.
The traditional inference from religion to politics is a questionable exercise, but the census results are in line with political trends such as the gradual disappearance of the unionist majority, and the emergence of a growing middle ground.
Whether the result portends a stable nationalist majority is a more open question. It's worth noting that nationalists already hold more seats than unionists at Westminster, though they are level-pegging in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
While the religion issue will get the most focus, other census questions are probably of more direct political significance in this respect. For example, slightly more people still think of themselves as 'British only' (31.86%) than 'Irish only' (29.13%), with 'Northern Irish only' counting for another 19.78%. This represents a stark shift from the 2011 figures: 'British only' (40%), 'Irish only' (25%), 'Northern Irish only' (21%). My initial reaction is that this volatility suggests a political rather than a demographic shift – possibly a Brexit effect.
The median vote in Northern Ireland is likely to go the middle-ground parties fin the near term. The strength of that casting vote will be diluted by the cross-community power-sharing system which underpins the influence of the main political blocs – a guarantee is increasingly as important to unionists as it is to nationalists.
Beyond that, it may be increasingly hard to interpret Northern Irish politics in terms of those two blocs, so that the constitutional future will depend less on demographic destiny than on political argument.