For the first time since the inception of the state just over a century ago, census results have revealed that Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. Everyone is very excited about this. Maybe as excited as people have ever been about census results. Maybe too excited.

To an extent, you can’t blame them. These results – 45.7 per cent Catholic; 43.5 per cent Protestant – are historic not just because it’s the first time this population breakdown has happened since Ireland was partitioned. They’re historic and significant because Ireland was partitioned to stop this happening.

The inception of Northern Ireland and the lines drawn to delineate it as part of the UK make little to no geographical sense – Donegal is not in Northern Ireland, despite the fact it is very much the most north county in Ireland – because they were chosen instead to ensure a Protestant, and therefore unionist, majority. This is not a controversial statement, although it sounds like one. It’s a widely regarded sentiment, one that even the BBC commented on earlier this year, albeit inadvertently, when discussing Sinn Fein’s surprise success in Stormont elections.

But as the figures have been released and disseminated today, people have assumed that because there are now more Catholics than Protestants hanging around in Northern Ireland, partition is doomed and reunification is imminent. Obviously this misses the nuance and the bigger picture, as political opinions on Twitter are wont to do.

“As an atheist, with an Irish identity, who grew up Catholic but comes from a British and Irish family, simplistic narratives that presume a binary political outlook based on the census are reductive at best,” the campaigner Emma DeSouza said, summing it up well. “We are far more complex and diverse.”

But of course, it would be myopic to ignore the significance of these results entirely. Historically, Catholicism has – largely detrimentally – been seen as intrinsically linked to the Irish question and tied up with centuries of British colonialism. Twitter eggs know it; Oliver Cromwell knew it. “Catholicism is more than a religion,” he said, in a quote since muralised across Northern Ireland. “It is a political power. Therefore I’m led to believe there will be no peace in Ireland until the Catholic Church is crushed.”

The statement, though baldly sectarian and xenophobic, is powerful in that it sums up the conflation of politics and religion that has come to define Ireland, both before and after partition.

Historically, identity and religion has been one and the same in Northern Ireland. I’m not immune to this myself. Although I don’t believe in God and don’t attend Church, not even on Christmas or Easter, I’d still describe myself, half-joking, as “culturally Catholic”. Most of the time this just means I know about five words in Latin, wear a St Christopher necklace and really like the movie Cruel Intentions. But on census day cultural Catholicism apparently means the fall of British Empire.

It goes without saying that the timing is significant. Questions about the union and the continued existence of Northern Ireland have been swirling since Brexit, since the 100th anniversary of partition in 2021, and since Sinn Féin became the biggest party on both sides of the border.

Arguably more revealing than the religious findings today, however, were the census’s results on national identity in Northern Ireland. Those identifying as British have plummeted, as have those identifying as Northern Irish, while more people are saying they are simply Irish. It’s tempting to attribute that fully to religion – as there are more Catholics and fewer Protestants, that there are less Brits and more Irish – or fully to Brexit. And certainly Brexit has been a factor – in a region that didn’t vote Leave and yet had to leave – in influencing just how involved its citizens might feel in British culture and the British political system.

But it’s too easy to blame all of these changes on Brexit-overhang. Yes, the number of people holding an Irish passport solely or jointly increased by 63.5 per cent between 2011 and 2021 but again, the figures themselves are misleading without context. More people are carrying an Irish passport, but that’s not exclusive to Northern Ireland. Across Britain in the aftermath of the referendum swathes of Brits suddenly began trawling their family trees for Irish heritage that would let them travel freely on a non-blue passport too.

When you discuss politics and religion as some sort of cultural monolith like this, you lose sight of what is actually revealed about the changing culture of Northern Ireland from this census. Away from the top-line of religion, even away from the top-line of national identity, there’s much more to learn here about Northern Ireland and the people who live there, particularly from the post-ceasefire generation I’m part of myself.

More from Opinion

The religious shift is interesting, but what’s more interesting to me is how the census dispelled the myth held among some that the overhang of the Troubles has made us a fundamentally apathetic, disengaged political class.

Census taking is unavoidably unsexy and boring – it’s admin! – and yet the response rate (97 per cent) was highest since 1991. That reveals, I think, how much we want to know about ourselves, about each other, about the place where we live and what it looks like and what it can be like in future

It’s more interesting that it revealed a Northern Ireland that’s slowly becoming more diverse; 4.6 per cent of us have a main language other than English, and 3.4 per cent (still phenomenally low compared to the rest of the UK) come from an ethnic minority background, double from 2011 and four times more than 2001. Results on sexuality, in a region that thanks to (both) religions dominance, has been a historically cold house for gay rights, will not be released until later, but it’s not a huge leap to predict there will be progress there too.

A criticism often levelled against Britain – not unfairly – is that the country doesn’t know enough about its own imperial past. Knowledge of empire is scant here, and there doesn’t appear to be much drive to change that (plenty of English kids can rattle off the names of Henry’s six wives with ease, but would be bemused if you called the Irish famine an act of genocide, but I digress!). Ireland, conversely, is often accused of dwelling too much on the past.

Certainly a lot of the reaction to the census results is motivated by Northern Ireland’s political history. It’s hard to imagine any other situation in which the fact there are more Catholics than Protestants in an area would have gone out as a Sky News “breaking” alert.

But although historic, it would be a mistake to conclude that these figures say more about Northern Ireland’s past than they do about its present, and more importantly, about its future. It’s too easy to take today’s results as confirmation of a changed society. They are really a symptom of a changing one.

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