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19/12/2002

Religious gap in Northern Ireland ‘closing’: census

Statistics from the long-awaited 2001 census in Northern Ireland has shown a decline in the number of Protestants to around 53% of the population with Catholics now comprising nearly 44%.

The figures were released today by the Northern Ireland Statistic and Research Agency in Belfast.

It is the narrowest percentage point gap recorded between the respective communities since Northern Ireland came into being in the early 1920s.

The Protestant population in Northern Ireland has dipped by 5%, but the rise in the number of Catholics, at 2%, is not as high as was predicted.

The Catholic community now makes up the majority of Belfast's population, with many Protestants having moved away to live in other parts of Co Down and Co Antrim.

Since 1961, when the Protestant figure was 63%, it has fallen in every census while the Catholic population has increased from 35%.

The Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy said despite the wealth of statistics published today, only these two figures would be talked about.

“This head count will dominate discussion because Northern Ireland is one of the few places in the world where a fact gathering census can be thought to have ‘winners’ and ‘losers’,” he said.

“Once the dust settles today, I hope the majority will see the census as a useful reminder of what the Belfast Agreement was all about. Because at the heart of the Agreement, was a recognition that the bitter divisions of Northern Ireland will never be solved by mere demographics.”

Meanwhile East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs has dismissed republican speculation that a united Ireland is imminent as “crude sectarian headcounting”.

“Every 10 years at the time when the census figures are about to be published the usual suspects come out with their sectarian demography argument. They make the illogical quantum leap that growing numbers of Roman Catholics as stated on the census returns, equals the end of the Union.”

He added: “The lack of substance in the political arguments of Irish republicans is startling. Their campaign is aimed at demoralising the pro British electorate and attempting to portray Irish unity as being somehow ‘inevitable’.”

The leader of the SDLP Mark Durkan said the results showing the Catholic community had grown came as “no surprise”.

“No-one can say with certainty that this will lead to the united Ireland that the SDLP seeks. But we can be certain that there will be a United Ireland if a majority votes for one and the South agrees,” he said.

However he added that the SDLP would be seeking to promote a united Ireland only under the guidelines and protections of the Belfast Agreement.

“For whatever change the future brings, some things will remain the same," he said. "Nationalists and Unionists will still face the challenge of sharing our society together as partners and equals.”

(AMcE)

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