Are there are more Cultural Catholics or Protestants in Northern Ireland?


On my recent blog on the Lord Ashcroft poll I made a statement that there were now almost certainly more Cultural Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland. There have been a number of queries, on Twitter, questioning whether this is true.

This blog is not a proper statistical study,  a full analysis would use far more detailed data and sophisticated analysis with a package like SPSS. This is more back of the envelope and a “straw man” in nature and is in no way definitive.

The Catholic-Protestant ratio is important, as there is a high correlation between Catholics identifying as Nationalist and Protestants identifying as Unionist. This may have profound consequences for a Border Poll and forthcoming Northern Ireland elections.

People in Northern Ireland can live very segregated lives, with Catholics voting for parties such as  Sinn Féin or the SDLP and Protestants voting for Unionist parties such as the DUP or UUP. A fact of NI life bizarrely not known by Karen Bradly, the previous NI Secretary.

There are of course an increasing number of NI people in the “other/neither” category, many who of whom vote for cross-community parties such as Alliance, Green or People Before Profit. Many younger Cultural Catholics and Protestants are fed up with the sectarian nature of NI politics and also vote for cross-party candidates.

As an election-winning strategy, there is always the decision as a party, as to whether you move to consolidate your core base or move to the centre. It is difficult task in NI as Sinn Féin is detested by large parts of the Unionist community (primarily because of their past IRA links) and the DUP similarly detested by the Catholic community (Orange Order, UDA links etc.)

One of the tragedies of NI is that the two more centrist parties, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have haemorrhaged votes, and neither has a current MP. Mike Nesbitt the former head of the UUP made a brave attempt to move towards the centre-ground by advising giving 2nd preferences to the SDLP, but could not bring his party with him.

Appealing to your core base is a sensible strategy, from a narrow political perspective,  if your base is sufficient to win, or at least do well in an election. From a societal point of view, it can be very destructive and polarising. It is deeply sad that Westminster politics seems to be following the NI model.

The DUP, in particular, have made no effort to reach out to the Cultural Catholic community. To be fair, Peter Robinson, the previous leader, understood the necessity, but Arlene Foster has reverted to a strategy of appealing to the core Unionist and Protestant vote. This is ultimately a losing strategy if your core vote is declining as a percentage of the population.

There is universal agreement that the Catholic community is growing concerning the Protestant one and that it will overtake that community in population sometime in the next decade. There have been headlines such as ‘Catholic majority possible’ in NI by 2021.

Could this have happened already?

As a starting point in answering the question, the obvious place is the 2011 census. This blog will also look at the more recent Labour Force and Schools surveys. Conclusions will be drawn.

The 2011 Census

A good place to start is the  Background to the Religion and  ‘Religion Brought up in’ Questions in the  Census, and their Analysis in  2001 and  2011 by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

On Page 12 of the document, there is probably the best estimate of Cultural Catholics and Protestants, from the 2011 Census. The Catholic group of 817,385 is 58,332 short of the Protestant Group of 875,717.

Fig.1 Estimate of Cultural Catholics and Protestants

The Catholic population is younger and growing, whereas the Protestant population is shrinking. To get an idea of how rapidly this is likely to change the population balance, there is a very useful table (Table 10) on page 14.

Fig. 2 Changes 2001 to 2011

Table 10 is very interesting. The headline figure is that, between 2001 and 2011, Catholics have increased by 80k, but Protestants decreased by 20k. This, of course, means that the number of Catholics, relative to Protestants,  increased by 100k in the ten year period between 2001 and 2011 – a rate of 10k per year.

There is also a considerable increase in “None”, the “other” group is growing fairly rapidly.

Whereas the Catholic birthrate is somewhat higher (118:89  – a c 1.3:1 ratio and 29k in number), the larger effect is that over twice as many Protestants as Catholics have died (95:46, a slightly greater than 2:1 ratio and 49k in number).

The deaths ratio is to be expected. People dying in NI have an average age of around 80. In this cohort Protestants outnumber Catholics by about two to one. This is close to the ratio that would have been present at the foundation of NI, with borders deliberately chosen to lock in a permanent Protestant majority. A nine-county Ulster would have been far more sensible, but Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan have Catholic majorities and would have perilously diluted the Protestant character of the Ulster its founding fathers were trying to create.

The birth ratio will depend on fertility and the number of adults in the child producing cohort, primarily in the 20-40y age bracket. The 2011 snapshot gives 241,699 Catholics and 211,113 Protestants – a ratio of 1.14:1. This ratio is an overestimate, as children born earlier in the census period may well have been born to the 40-59 cohort which actually has a Protestant majority.  Fertility, seems from these figures, to be a significant effect. The far more detailed work of McGregor and McKee (a full-blown statistical analysis) concludes however: “The marginal effect of a being a Catholic woman is a 4 % higher fertility compared to a Protestant. This difference is small but significant though it is likely to fall in the future because there has been a marked decline in the fertility across older Catholic cohorts and these will drop out with the passage of time.

The other interesting figure is the Residual column. This is due to immigration and emigration. This is positive for Catholics and negative for Protestants.

Regarding the loss of Protestants, via emigration,  I suspect a major component are students who go to University in Britain, never to return. As someone who has worked in the British University sector for many years, I have many NI Protestant friends. These are academically very able, but sadly have little desire to return to Northern Ireland. Its a real shame that NI is losing some of its brightest and best.

NI Catholics often go the two NI Universities, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and the University of Ulster – many stay in NI after graduation. Both are becoming increasingly Catholic-dominated and there have been worries that they are becoming cold houses for Unionists.  Whereas many NI Catholics emigrate, anecdotally they do so as a lower percentage than Protestants. Also the largest  EU (non Irish or British) cohort in NI are Poles, who are overwhelmingly Catholic. Polish immigration may well have more than offset NI Catholic emigration.

Fig. 3 Religious breakdown by age cohort from the 2011 census.
Is the change between 2011 to 2021 likely to be greater or less than the change between 2001 and 2011?

The demographics are such (Fig 3) that the excess of Protestants over Catholics in the oldest age group is decreasing. One would expect more Protestants than Catholics to have died in the ’11-’21 period but somewhat less than the 2:1 ratio of the 2001-11 period.

On the other hand the major child bearing age population, the 20-40 age group, is becoming increasingly Catholic dominated. It is likely that the birth rate discrepancy will increase in that considerably more Catholics will be born than Protestants.

There is also the fact that NI is becoming more secular; more children are in the “neither” or other group. These are often people of mixed marriages. There is also the question of whether people losing their religion are more likely to be Protestant of Catholic?

Assuming, however these factors will more or less cancel out and using the linear trend in the 2001-11 data,  the Catholic population will be growing by about 10k per year with respect to the Protestant one.

As the gap between the two populations was c 60k in 2011 and 8 years have passed,  linear  extrapolation will put the Catholics ahead by 20k. It is likely therefore that all things being equal that Catholics outnumber Protestants.

All things of course will not be equal, fortunately there is more recent data in the Labour Force Study and Schools Census.

The Labour Force Survey

The Labour force survey religion report (2017) contains a wealth of data and is only two years old. There is an analysis here by Bangordub. The headline finding is:

“There were 643,000 Protestants aged 16 and over in 1990; in 2017 this figure has decreased, to 612,000. Over this period, the number of Catholics increased by 165,000, or 38%, from 440,000 to 605,000. The number of people aged 16 and over classified as ‘other/non-determined’ has more than trebled from 63,000 to 245,000 between 1990 and 2017″

That was a 7k person gap between the two primary blocs or 0.6%, two years ago. There is a major caveat in that the Labour Force Survey made less effort in classifying ‘other/non-determined’ as cultural Catholics or Protestants.

More Catholics than Protestants will be turning 16, and more Protestants dying.  Simply extrapolating from the 2001-11 trend gives an excess of 4.9k Protestant deaths pa. Hence in terms of deaths alone two years will be sufficient to close the gap and put Catholics ahead of Protestants in the 16+ age group. This group is typically around 75+ and identifies very strongly with religion and the numbers of them of ‘other/non-determined’ is likely to be small.

For the younger cohort entering the Labour force, there is the Schools Census, which will help at this end of the range.

The Schools Census

This analysis is based on that by Faha on the Bangordub site.

The schools census (2018) gives the number of Catholics at 164,353 and Protestants at 107,695. There are also Other Christian 12,300 (largely Greek and Russian Orthodox), Non-Christian, 3,400 (largely Muslim and Jewish) and No Religion/Non Recorded   34,973.

Focusing on the primary communities, if others are excluded, there is a 60%-40% ratio in favour of Catholics and 56,658 in actual numbers. The ratios for the 2001 census were 56%:44% in favour of Catholics for the 0-9 age cohort and  54%:46% in the 10-19 cohort. It is clear the predominance of Catholics over Protestants is growing – there is an accelerating trend.

The “No Religion/Non-Recorded” group is quite substantial, so some cultural Catholics and Protestants may not be recorded.

I have no data at present for pre-school children, but there seems every likelihood this accelerating trend will continue and the excess of Catholics over Protestants even higher.

As a very crude estimate, assuming a 12y average stay in school and stable class sizes, this would mean an excess of c 4.7k Catholics pa turning 16.

Combining this with the estimated excess of 4.9k Protestant deaths, this would give a crude estimate that the 16+ the Catholic population is growing by c 9.6k per year wrt to the Protestant community, enough to close the 7k gap in the Labour Force Survey.


Caveat. The analysis is very crude and much better data will be available within two years at the 2021 census.

Crude extrapolation from the 2011 Census puts Catholics ahead of Protestants by c 20k.

Combining more recent surveys, for people of school age and above Catholics outnumber Protestants by a considerable number, by at least 50k and possibly as high as 70k. If pre-school children are included this number will be even higher. There are however cultural Catholics and Protestants who won’t be captured by these figures.

The statement there are almost certainly more Cultural Catholics then Protestants in Northern Ireland is likely very sound.

For people of working age (16+) the 2017 gap in the Labour Force Survey, when Protestants outnumbered Catholics by 7k should have closed and there should be something like an 11k excess of Catholics.

For the voting age population (18+) the excess of Catholics over Protestants is likely to be less than 11k.

Giving the crudeness of the estimates (and statistical uncertainties in the surveys) however it is not possible to be certain about the latter two statements (for the 16+ and 18+ group). It is safer to assume the two communities are pretty much exactly the same size.

There is also a growing ‘other’ group. It is likely in for example a Border Poll that it is these that will hold the balance of power.

As the Ashcroft poll gave a crude 51%-49% in favour of a United Ireland and the GFA stipulates a simple majority (50%+1) a Border Poll now tips marginally towards the way of a United Ireland.

The Nationalist strategy can simply be to sit and wait, as demographics will be more and more in their favour. For a Border Poll, they need to appeal to the “unaligned” typical Alliance/Green voter.  As the Ashcroft poll indeed indicates that the “unaligned” are indeed splitting towards a United Ireland, the strategy seems to be working.

The Unionist strategy has to be to move to the centre. That they should immediately support the Backstop and the Irish Language Act, which should be what the Americans call a “no brainer.” This will be immensely popular with the Catholic and the unaligned community and make them think twice when a Border Poll is held.  They should also move towards more liberal values on abortion and same-sex marriage. These issues are important to the “unaligned” community (but maybe out of Unionist hands anyway).

A U-turn is unlikely; the DUP strategy seems to be if you are in a hole, keep digging.  Events in Westminster are however so unpredictable that the future is almost unknowable. Is a “Road to Damascus” moment possible?


  1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    Thanks, Sean, again for taking the time to put this sort of info together for the benighted Brits to whom it is mysterious.

    Some of us think it interesting and (particularly in the context of Brexit) important.

Write a reply or comment Comments Policy

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *