Belfast Telegraph

One in five see themselves as Northern Irish: change in who we think we are

By Liam Clarke

More than one in five people here now consider themselves Northern Irish, the latest census figures have revealed.

Last year’s census was the first to ask a question about national identity — and revealed that while nearly half the population is Catholic, only around a quarter of people say they are Irish.

Those who regard themselves as having any British identity now represent less than half of Northern Ireland’s population.

Perhaps the most remarkable statistic is that a substantial 21% of people identified as ‘Northern Irish’, as opposed to British or Irish alone. This rose to 28.3% when those Northern Irish who also regarded themselves as Irish, British or all three were included.

The most eagerly awaited statistic is always the overall balance of Catholics and Protestants — the so-called sectarian headcount.

But the latest figures, released yesterday, challenge conventional wisdom that national identity and religion are directly linked.

Catholics now make up 41% of the population, or 45% if you count people brought up Catholics but who have abandoned the religion. That is up slightly from 40% and 43.8% in 2001, and is the highest proportion in our history.

However, this high Catholic figure isn’t reflected in an Irish national identity. People were asked whether they identified as Irish, British, Northern Irish, or some combination of the three.

While nearly half the population has a Catholic background, just 25% think of themselves as solely Irish, while around 28% declare some sense of Irish identity.

By contrast, the Protestant population has fallen since 2001. Last year 48% of people said they either belonged to or were brought up in Protestant denominations — down from 53.1% in 2001.

But only a minority of 40% of the total population considered themselves exclusively British.

This rose to 48%, still a minority, when multiple identities such as British and Northern Irish (6.2%) were included in the count.

Queen's University academic Dr Ian Shuttleworth said he was interested by the number who chose Northern Ireland as their sole identity.

“It's a new question, but what surprised me was the size of the people who declared themselves to have a Northern Irish identity, which is sort of running the Irish part of the population — people who declared themselves as having an Irish identity — very close in third place,” he said. “I was very surprised by that and I am not sure what that means.”

The largest single Protestant denomination was the Presbyterian Church, with 19% of the population claiming membership.

This trend of a narrowing gap between Catholics and Protestants — now just 3% — reflects long-term demographic shifts.

Other statistics show that the Catholic population is younger than the Protestant one, and it is already in a majority in the under-35 age group and in schools.

Protestants are dying off at a faster rate than Catholics because they are, on average, older. If trends continue, Catholics will outnumber Protestants.

On the straight question of which passport people choose, a clear majority of 59% said UK, 21% said Irish and 19% had no passport at all. A minority held passports from other countries.

Some 17% either said they had no religion or didn’t give one, equivalent to the number of Church of Ireland members (14%) and Methodists (3%) combined.

The number of people belonging to minority ethnic groups is small at 1.8% (32,400 people), but had doubled in the past 10 years.

Those who belonged to non-Christian religion or philosophies were only 0.8%. Polish is the mother tongue of 17,700 people living here, the most common language other than English.

There are also more of us, 1.811m to be precise, marking an increase of 7.5% (125,600) since 2001.


The council area with the greatest proportion calling themselves British only was Carrickfergus (62%) with the highest prevalence of Irish only were in Derry (52%). The council with the highest share of Catholics was Newry & Mourne (79%), while for Protestants, it was Carrickfergus (79%). North Down had the highest share of people with no religion (12%).

Our homes

More of us are renting privately these days.

The figures have more than doubled since 2001 with 95,200 people or 14% of the population depending on private landlords.

Overall the number of households has gone up 12% to 703,300 with an average of 2.65 people in each of them, reflecting more young people moving out on their own.

Over 99% have central heating and 37% live in detached properties, 28% in semis, 25% in terraced houses and 14% in flats. The proportion of larger houses in the market may spell trouble for claimants under new benefit rules which limit the number of bedrooms.


More than three-quarters of households (77%) had access to a car or van, up from 74% in 2001.

Over the same period, the proportion of households with access to two or more cars or vans increased from 29% to 36%.

Dependence on cars or vans was highest in rural districts like Magherafelt, Cookstown and Dungannon where 94% or more households had a vehicle.

It was lowest in Belfast at 60%. Statisticians believe the main variable was the greater availability of a public transport alternative in the city.

Overall 58% of people drove to work.


There was both good and bad news for our schools.

On the upside, 24% of people aged sixteen or over had achieved a degree, professional diploma or higher qualification and a further 12% had A-Levels.

On the downside, 29% had no qualification at all. Apprenticeships were also low at 4.2%.

Richard Ramsey, chief economist at the Ulster Bank, said that this skills gap was a major problem for industry and, unless it was addressed, would harm our chances of economic recovery. Degree level qualifications were commonest (over 25%) in Belfast and its travel to work area.

Our health

Ill-health has a major economic impact. More than a fifth of people (21%) have long-term health problems which limit their day to day activity and a further 12% provide unpaid care for them.

Breaking down the figures, 11% of people had a mobility problem while 10% suffered long-term pain or discomfort.

Reflecting this, 12% of household accommodation had been designed or adapted for wheelchair usage, other physical or mobility problems, visual difficulties, hearing difficulties or other circumstances. On the other hand, 80% of people said that they were in good health. This fell to 75% in Strabane and 76% in Belfast.


66% of people were economically active with 36% in full-time jobs.

Another 13% were working part-time and 8.9% were self-employed. Ten per cent worked from home. There were 640,000 employees, up 76,200 on the 2001 figure.

The biggest employment sectors were wholesale, retail or repair of vehicles (18%) and health or social work (8.2%). Manufacturing was lower (9.7%), about the same as education (9.4%). Reflecting the downturn, construction was low at 8.2% but this rose to 18% in Magherafelt.

Richard Ramsey of the Ulster Bank said this showed the need for more infrastructural projects if skills were not to be lost.


Despite a rise in immigration since 12 more countries joined the EU after 2004, we are still a fairly stable and homogenous society.

98% of us are white and overall only 1.8% of us belong to minority ethnic groups, though this has doubled since 2001.

11% of us were born outside Northern Ireland, mostly in Britain (4.6%), the Republic (2.1%) or Europe (2.4%). Ninety-three per cent have never resided outside NI.

Despite efforts to tempt emigrants back home, only 1.8% (28,300 people) of the usually-resident population had lived elsewhere and returned between 2007 and census day 2011.

Link between our religion and |our politics is fast weakening

By Liam Clarke

The census results suggest that the political playbook should be rewritten in Northern Ireland.

The logic of the blocks, of two distinct communities who have to be managed and led separately is starting to break down.

The census doesn’t ask people how they would vote in a border referendum, but the results on national identity fit fairly closely with the finding of our May LucidTalk poll.

Then, only 7% of those surveyed said they would vote for a united Ireland now.

The census, which surveys the whole population and is more accurate than an opinion poll, found no clear majority for any national identity.

However, British scored highest at 40% with Irish and Northern Irish trailing at 25% and 21% respectively. Many people choose multiple identities.

Additional tables to be released in March will show how these national identities are distributed across the religious groups.

However, since nearly half the population is Catholic and rising, it is clear that Catholics cannot all be identifying as Irish.

This has profound implications.

The figures indicate that many Catholics call themselves Northern Irish, a name that some Sinn Fein ministers have banned from their departments, and some British.

Others must be choosing UK passports, although it is as easy to get an Irish one through the local post office.

Many people, like Rory McIlroy, clearly choose more than one national identity.

It is obvious that the once almost automatic link between religion and political allegiance, though still a powerful factor, is weakening as peace continues. On top of that, as both official turnout figures and polls show, fewer people are motivated to vote at every election.

Peter Robinson (right), the DUP leader, covered some of these bases during his conference speech.

He told delegates that “the siege is over” and that nowadays “our purpose is not to defeat, but by words and deeds to persuade”.

He spoke of a politics based on economic issues and appealing across religious denominations.

Yet the big issue now grabbing the headlines is a squabble over flags whipped up by politicians.

It led to death threats to an MP, political offices burned, a murder attempt on a police officer and damage to our reputation.

The census spells the more substantial priorities out. They include poverty, chronic ill-health, an aging population, a yawning skills gap left by our post-primary education system, inadequate public transport and a shrinking manufacturing sector.

These affect people’s lives and, as Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail suggested yesterday, kicking up a fuss about purely symbolic issues looks like a distraction.

The existing parties may yet adopt and refocus.

The speeches Mr Robinson and Martin McGuinness make when abroad indicate that they, at least, know what is needed.

Yet knowing is one thing; doing it could strain their traditional support bases.

If they fall back on a playbook written during orange/green struggles of previous centuries they risk creating a vacuum that will be filled by new political forces or even by further violence.

Belfast Telegraph

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