A Catholic majority doesn't mean united Ireland, says DUP MP Jim Shannon
A report suggesting that Catholics will outnumber Protestants by 2021 in Northern Ireland does not mean a united Ireland is any closer, a DUP MP has insisted.
The study from Dr Paul Nolan suggests the Protestant majority will end in three years - on the 100th anniversary of partition.
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But Strangford MP Jim Shannon said that while he "can't argue with the statistics", there was no cause for concern among unionists that it means reunification is a step nearer.
"The real issue here is not the religious make-up of the population, it's the question: 'Does this bring forward a united Ireland?' The answer is no. It doesn't," he argued.
Census figures in 2011 showed a narrowing gap between the two religions, putting the Protestant population at 48%, just 3% ahead of the Catholic one (45%).
Figures from 2016 show that among those of working age, 44% are now Catholic and 40% Protestant.
The difference is even more marked among schoolchildren, with 51% Catholic and 37% Protestant.
Only among the over-60s is there a majority of Protestants, with 57% compared to Catholics on 35%.
Dr Nolan, who specialises in monitoring the peace process and social trends, said: "Three years from now we will end up, I think, in the ironic situation on the centenary of the state, where we actually have a state that has a Catholic majority."
But Mr Shannon said: "This research doesn't change anything. Unionism and nationalism don't automatically equate to Protestant and Catholic. Politics, not religion, is what matters.
"I can only speak for my constituency, but I know many people from religions other than Protestant who have no intention of calling for a united Ireland.
"They want to stay as part of the United Kingdom and I don't see that changing by 2021 or 2030."
The report comes not long after DUP leader Arlene Foster said she would probably leave in the event of a united Ireland.
In response, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said: "Of course unionists have to be at home in a new Ireland. It has to be as much a home for Arlene Foster and her family as for mine.
"So, yes, let's have the discussion."
Ms McDonald feels that every aspect of life on the island should now be on the table for discussion.
She added: "As far as I'm concerned, nothing is taboo. Let's talk about the flag, let's talk about the anthem, let's talk about every nuance and every aspect of Irish life, north and south."
Looking at the last Census in 2011, Mr Nolan pointed out that although 45% identified as being from a Catholic background, only 25% claimed an exclusively Irish identity.
He said: "The future of unionism depends entirely upon one thing - and I mean unionism with a small 'u' - it depends on winning the support of people who do not regard themselves to be unionists with a capital 'U'.
"In other words people who do not identify with the traditional trappings of unionism; people who would give their support for a UK Government framework - and that's a sizeable proportion of Catholics provided they are not alienated by any form of triumphalism or anything that seems to be a rejection of their cultural identity as nationalists."
It is likely there will be "more examination of what a united Ireland might mean", according to Dr Nolan.
"Does it mean one parliament in Dublin or two parliaments? One in Belfast and one in Dublin? I think the more that gets unpacked, the more opinion will move back and forward. It's not going to go just in one direction."
Dr Nolan also warned not to rely too heavily on polls for an indication on support for a united Ireland. Dismissing opinion polls declaring support for a united Ireland, Dr Nolan says the polls ask the wrong question.
"If we got to the situation where people go into a polling booth and have to put the mark against a united Ireland, it's very hard for anyone to predict it.
"Just ask Hillary Clinton, ask David Cameron, ask Theresa May: were they right to put their faith in the opinion polls? I don't think so."