Six in ten Northern Ireland babies are now born outside wedlock
Belfast and Derry among UK regions with highest percentage of births to unmarried parents
More than four out of 10 births in Northern Ireland are taking place outside of marriage, it can be revealed.
However, in the province's two main cities, that figure has soared to almost six out of 10 - with 59% of babies in Belfast and 58.7% in Londonderry being born to cohabiting couples or lone parents.
Free Presbyterian Minister Rev David McIlveen said the figures were a "tragedy" and added that too many young people cannot make a distinction between "love and lust".
But Michael Kelly, editor of the influential Irish Catholic magazine, said that churches were, in general, no longer draconian in their attitude towards people who have children outside marriage.
According to the new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 10,540 babies were born outside marriages or civil partnerships in Northern Ireland in 2014 out of a total of 24,394, equating to an average of 43.2%. In Larne, more than half (50.1%) of all babies were born to unmarried parents, with the rate sitting at 46% in Carrickfergus and 45.2% in Newtownards.
By contrast, the fewest babies born out of wedlock were in Magherafelt (27%), closely followed by Omagh (29.8%) and then Armagh (31.6%).
"Overall, these figures are very sad, and reflect that we are swinging towards a promiscuous society," said Rev McIlveen.
"Morals have been devalued, and people don't respect traditional values.
"Young people are unable to make a distinction between lust and love, and this is a major problem in Northern Ireland.
"Society is built on love between man and woman, and therefore marriage.
"We shouldn't have this problem of babies being born out of wedlock."
On a UK level, 46.7% of babies were born outside marriage during 2014 - slightly higher than Northern Ireland's 43.2% rate, which is the same level as the affluent south east of England.
London, meanwhile, has the lowest proportion of children born outside of marriage (36%), while the rate is almost 60% in both the north east and in Wales. There were also high rates in the north west of England, Yorkshire, the east Midlands and Scotland.
The Northern Ireland 2014 figures compare with 10,231 out of 25,315 (40.4%) newborns coming into the world out of wedlock in 2010. And looking back, there were 8,108 out of a total of 22,328 (36.3%) in 2005, according to Northern Ireland's Statistics and Research Agency.
"There's no longer the same taboo about issues such as having a child out of wedlock," said Mr Kelly.
"People are not ashamed about it in the way they may have been in a previous generation. The churches are much more understanding about it as well. No one wants a return to the days when unmarried mothers were shunned and were treated very badly."
On a different subject, the latest statistics from the ONS highlighted that Northern Ireland had the highest number of churchgoers in the UK and was socially very conservative.
‘For me it was more about the children being brought up within a family unit’
Diane Hill (33), a director at Employers for Childcare, has been married to 38-year-old Marcus Hill, a businessman, for 10 years. The couple live in Carrickfergus with their three children Sophia (eight), six-year-old Sienna and Anais (four):
We got married Greenisland Church of Ireland on July 23, 2005.
The bridal party went to the church first and everyone else came to the blessing at Carrickfergus Castle. We had a marquee there followed by a party at the Templeton Hotel.
Getting married was important to me. That’s how I’d been brought up. Both our parents were married and that really was the next step for us.
We’d been going out for two years before Marcus proposed to me and we really wanted to get married before we moved in together.
I’m not particularly religious; it was more about the children being brought up within a family unit. I wanted that for my children and for them to have the same name. That has always been the norm for me — you get married, have children — and that’s what I wanted to replicate.
I don’t think marriage makes a big difference to a lot of people. My wedding day was the best day of my life — and the most expensive! I was only 23 at the time. I thought I was a fairy princess and we really went to town — with a marquee and a horse and carriage etc.
I really believed in happy ever after. Little did I know you have to put a lot of effort into a marriage and a family! Having to compromise is the hardest thing about being married. But I have no regrets. It has all worked out well for me. That’s what I want for my children too.
‘Kids aren’t designed to be raised by one person’
Journalist Stephanie Bell (49) lives with her 10-year-old son Matthew in Lurgan. She says marriage wasn’t for her:
Things didn’t work out between myself and Matthew’s daddy.
Marriage just didn’t feel right in the relationship I was in and I didn’t think twice about bringing my son up on my own; it’s just the way things were at the time.
Getting pregnant at 39 was a blessing to me. I had actually grieved the fact that I was not going to be a mum towards my late 30s when I found myself single and I did think it wasn’t going to happen to me and I thought that that was something I just had to accept.
So when I unexpectedly found out I was pregnant with Matthew I was stunned, as it was the last thing I was expecting, but at the same time I was completely overjoyed. He was my wee angel sent down from Heaven. He was a gift.
I was so happy to have him that being single didn’t come into it. Having said that, it’s not easy being a lone parent. Children are definitely not designed for one person, especially when they’re babies. I split up with my partner during my pregnancy which was tough. If circumstances had been different, though, I wouldn’t necessarily have objected to being married but unfortunately I wasn’t in a position for that to work out.
Given a choice, sometimes I think I’d have maybe preferred not to have brought him up on my own but that’s just how it worked out for us.
I don’t have anything against the institution of marriage. I understand people who don’t marry but if I found a soul mate I wouldn’t hesitate but it hasn’t happened for me unfortunately.