Catholics close gap in Northern Ireland census
Northern Irish census figures, among the most politically charged statistics in the divided province, showed yesterday that the minority Catholic population is closing the gap on Protestants.
The figures are seen as having a crucial bearing on the future of the province, because Protestants largely want to remain under British rule while most Catholics favour reunification with the Irish Republic to the south.
The new figures put the Protestant population down nearly five points from a 1991 census to 53.1% and the Catholic population up almost two points to 43.8% of the total population of 1.7 million.
Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which aimed to end three decades of bloodshed, Northern Ireland will remain under British rule for as long as the majority wish it.
When Northern Ireland was created in 1921, Protestants, mostly descended from Scottish and English settlers "planted" in the northeastern part of Ireland in the 17th Century, were in a two-thirds to one-thirds majority over Catholics.
While the new figures, based on data collected in 2001, showed the Catholic population at its highest in the 81-year history of the province, it was below what had been estimated by many experts and politicians.
The 1991 census put Protestants at 58% and Catholics at 42%.
NI religious gap closes (BBC)
Fascination of religion head count (BBC)
Northern Ireland Assembly
20 Dec 2002