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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 12:46 GMT
Fascination of religion head count
Derry city
Derry city shows the highest rate of growth

Unlike most of the rest of the UK, the census results in Northern Ireland hold high political fascination.

In the lead up to Thursday's results there has been intense speculation about the balance between Catholics and Protestants.

The political interest stems from the high, but not complete correlation, between religious affiliation and political preference, with virtually all Protestants preferring to remain in the UK while most, but not all, Catholics seeking unification with the rest of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland census has always sought to measure religious identity but the 2001 census changed the format of the question.

Open in new window : Graphic guide
Key figures from the Northern Ireland census

In the 1991 census, those not indicating a religious affiliation rose to 12% and made it difficult to assess the overall picture.

To try and establish a more accurate figure, the census question asked those who did not have a current religious identity to indicate the religious community they had been brought up in.

Many people seemed content with this approach.

When the two answers are combined they form the community background measure which enables a better estimate of the religious balance to be made.

So what do the census results suggest on this issue?

The overall religious balance is recorded as 43.76% Catholic and 53.13% Protestant and other related Christian denominations.

The remainder is made up of 0.39% who belong to "other religions and philosophies" and 2.72% who cannot be allocated.

Surprise at figures

Many commentators will be surprised that the Catholic proportion is not higher. Some were even suggesting that the figure might be 46-47%.

What many may have missed, however, is that the 1990s saw a fundamental change in migration behaviour, with virtually the same numbers coming into Northern Ireland as leaving.

In the future, as fertility rates become similar, the main determinate of population changes will probably be decided by migrants

Prof Bob Osborne
It is clear that the composition of these two groups has a vital impact on the population balance and that it is possible that more Protestants returned to Northern Ireland during the 1990s than had been thought.

In terms of the geographical distribution of the two communities within Northern Ireland, there is evidence of the west and south of Northern Ireland becoming more Catholic with a declining Protestant population, while Protestants are increasingly concentrated in the east.

For example, Catholics represent 71% in Londonderry, 76% in Newry and Mourne, 66% in Strabane, 69% in Omagh and 64% in Magherafelt while Protestants represent 76% in Ballymena, 72% in Larne, 83% in Ards and 81% in North Down.

Belfast, where the population has been falling as people move to the suburbs, shows a fine balance with 49% Protestant, 47% Catholic and 4% as other religions or none.

The surrounding suburban areas are predominantly Protestant.

Migrants factor

In historical perspective the 2001 census records a further growth of the Catholic population from 37% thirty years ago, but the rate of increase is somewhat smaller than some predicted.

In the future, as fertility rates become similar, the main determinate of population changes will probably be decided by migrants, those moving into and out of Northern Ireland.

And it is these groups that we know least about.

Alongside the religion question, the census in Northern Ireland sought information on ethnicity for the first time.

The census results reveal that the Northern Ireland population has a total Chinese population of just over 4000 most of whom are in Belfast and a total 'non-white' population just over 14,000.


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UK breakdown

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See also:

30 Sep 02 | N Ireland
29 Apr 01 | N Ireland
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