“A ‘demographic certainty’ catholics will form the majority of the population in Northern Ireland but not for another generation

Purely out of interest, as I have done this kind of thing before in my professional work, I decided to do a projection of when exactly the catholics will be in the majority in Northern Ireland in terms of outnumbering anyone who does not affiliate as catholic as recorded in the census, and the answer came out at around 2038 (projection done on 12 February 2019).

So this is a generation away which was certainly a huge surprise to me, as most posts and blogs I’ve read seem to think it will happen in a few years time. Not so. Not by a long shot.

At the 2011 census, 45% were catholic and 48% protestant (6).

“Thomas Andrews, Jr. was a British businessman and shipbuilder. He was managing director and head of the drafting department of the shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff in Belfast, Ireland. As the naval architect in charge of the plans for the ocean liner RMS Titanic, he was travelling on board that vessel during her maiden voyage when the ship hit an iceberg on 14 April 1912. He perished along with more than 1,500 others. His body was never recovered”.

He is alleged to have said regarding if she would sink after striking the iceberg: “I assure you she can! And she will. It is a mathematical certainty”.

How does this connect to projections of the Catholic and non-Catholic population of Northern Island ? Well I replied to a post – using the Titanic analogy – saying it was a ‘demographic certainty’ that Catholics would form the majority in Northern Ireland. So since, at the time I did the projections, I thought there was no information on when this will happen – the Office for National Statistics for example in the UK do not provide projections broken down by religious affiliation in Northern Ireland – I decided to do it myself.

I subsequently found an article in the Irish Independent (from February 2018) which says that the economist David McWilliams in a recent article calculated that ‘Catholics would become the absolute majority in Northern Ireland around 2036’ (3).

So two independent studies are more or less saying the same thing that the point at which catholics will form the majority will be around 2036-2038.

Projections 2017-2060 for the Catholic and non-Catholic populations of Northern Ireland – summary of methodology and assumptions

ONS Principal Projection 2016 for Northern Ireland 2018-2060 with modelled differential in Catholic and non-Catholic total period fertility rates (2017 TPFR total 1.91; Catholic 2.28; non Catholic 1.61), population prevalence of percent Catholic in 2017 based on sources recently quoted by the BBC; model includes cohort-effects modelled over the projection horizon; net external migration and cross border migration is negligible so dropped from the model; the curvature of the lines reflects these non-linear effects; model is a period-cohort component model; model is constrained so the sum of the Catholic and non-Catholic projections add to the principal ONS projection for each year in the series; age-specific effects are included in the cohort parameters; medium variant ONS series is used; projections should be used with caution; assumptions become less valid as the projection horizon approaches (2060); model can be changed to test sensitivity of all key parameters.

Key Results

The model (Figure 1) shows that catholics in Northern Ireland will exceed 50 percent of the population for the first time in 2038 (50%) with the proportion of the total population of Northern Ireland who affiliate with the Catholic religion rising to 55% by 2060. The Protestant population is not explicitly modelled and is subsumed in the residual ‘non-Catholic’ population group.

Figure 1 – Projected population of Northern Ireland who affiliate with the Catholic Religion compared with those who do not – constrained to ONS 2016 base principal projection series for Northern Ireland

Sources and references

1.ONS 2016. Office for National Statistics licensed under the Open Government Licence. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationprojections/bulletins/nationalpopulationprojections/2016basedstatisticalbulletin.

2. BBC 2018. ‘Catholic majority possible’ in NI by 2021’. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-43823506.

3. ‘Demographics might be shifting to a united Ireland – but divides still have to be bridged’. Andy Pollak. Irish Independent. 10 Feb 2018.

4. Department of Education. https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-education.

5. 2016 Labour Force Survey. https://www.ons.gov.uk/search?q=labour+force+survey.

6. 2011 census. Office for National Statistics ; National Records of Scotland ; Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (2016): 2011 Census aggregate data. UK Data Service (Edition: June 2016). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5257/census/aggregate-2011-1

This information is licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence [http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3].

7. Religion and Fertility in Contemporary Northern Ireland.Patrick McGregor and Patricia McKeeEur J Popul. 2016; 32(4): 599–622. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5056953/

8. Family size and religious denomination in Northern Ireland. Compton PA, Coward J, Wilson-Davis K. J Biosoc Sci. 1985 Apr;17(2):137-45. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3997909

9. Belfast Telegraph 2012. ‘Protestant-Catholic gap narrows as census results revealed’. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/protestantcatholic-gap-narrows-as-census-results-revealed-29004134.html .


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