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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

Minority Report: Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland

One of the big news stories in Northern Ireland this week was that the Census 2021 figures reveal that, for the first time since the partition of Ireland just over 100 years ago, the percentage of ‘Catholics’ in Northern Ireland is greater than that of ‘Protestants’. This event was easily foreseeable based on trends in populations over recent decades, but it still feels momentous. Northern Ireland was designed to have a built in Protestant majority. The design had the fatal flaw that it did not predict the effect that differences in birth rates would have over time.

I was surprised at my emotional reaction when I heard this news. I cannot say I was surprised. I would not say I was fearful. But I must admit to feeling somewhat unsettled. I am not proud of that fact. I worry that my reaction may betray some residual sectarianism in my heart. I was not brought up in a sectarian household – rather, my parents taught me to love all people as Jesus commands and we were certainly not strongly political and had no engagement with the Orange Order or similar societies. Nevertheless, at primary school I imbibed some of the attitudes in my surroundings and sang songs that I would now be ashamed of. I remember vividly as a young adult how the Lord put his finger on this and I underwent a painful process of heart surgery as he excised the sinful senses of superiority and suspicion that are the hallmarks of a sectarian attitude. I hope that cancer has not recurred.

I suppose my unsettled feelings are not necessarily a sign of sectarianism. It is natural to feel odd when there is change in the air. I think the recent experience of the Queen’s funeral also affects how I feel. It was hard not to have some sense of Britishness watching all the pomp and circumstance. It is true that I am unionist by preference. Not strongly so but more because of a default to preferring what is familiar. I find the Irish Sea Protocol annoying for more than merely practical reasons (how it affects deliveries). Ideologically, I think that so long as Northern Ireland is part of the UK there should be no border between it and Great Britain for either people or goods.

I was not always so. In my university years I went through a phase of identifying strongly with Irish culture and preferring the idea of political unification of the island. This was not merely a survival strategy for a Protestant in the minority in a predominantly Catholic university (Queen’s University Belfast). It was also driven by a romanticised view of Irish identity – a love of its folk music and mythologies. That has lessened over time, although my love of this island in its culture and landscapes is still strong. The other factor in my preference for Irish unity was a somewhat naïve belief that it may further the cause of the gospel. That has lessened too. In part that is because I am not at all sure that Northern Protestants are the best people to evangelise Southern Catholics (or lapsed Catholics). There is a lot of baggage to overcome. In part, I fear, it reflects a generalised decline in my passion for evangelism that I confess to my discredit. May the Lord increase it!

All this talk of Protestants and Catholics confuses me too. I realise the terms are meaningful as markers of two distinct communities in Northern Ireland. Those communities are really ethnic groupings – the descendants of seventeenth-century colonists from Scotland, England and Wales predominate among Protestants, while Catholics are mostly descended from people who inhabited Ireland before that wave of government-sponsored immigration called the Plantation of Ulster. The former group were Protestant in two main shades – Presbyterian mainly from Scotland and Anglican mainly from England and Wales. The ethnic groups kept apart due to different sense of national allegiance and preserved their distinct cultures (sports, names, ways of speaking etc.), reinforced by separate education and low rates of intermarriage. The religious identities became shorthand for these ethno-political tribes.

This means that ‘Protestant’ is often an unhelpful label for people like me who want to emphasise what unites us rather than separating us. I would not tick that box on a census or survey. Yet theologically I am undoubtedly Protestant. I have appreciated Roman Catholic theologians and apologists, and believe practising Catholics can be genuine believers, but my commitment to the ‘Reformation solas’ marks me as a Protestant. I wish that the labels for people were more closely related to those important questions like whether their faith is in Jesus alone and whether they understand grace and have access to the Bible. How petty it seems to link meaningful words like Protestant and Catholic (which shorn of its unhelpful ‘Roman’ limitations and restored to its original meaning is a wonderful truth that applies to all Christians).

The biggest reason why I struggle with the two community framework is that it excludes people like my wife, who is a Christian in a Protestant church but was not born here and shares no lineage with planters. My children, similarly, are not as simple as these labels suggest. I long for a more nuanced way of thinking about people in Northern Ireland. Yet I worry that the decline in these traditional labels, indicated by the growth of non-religious numbers in the 2021 census and the rising votes given to the non-sectarian Alliance party, also means a decline in Christian faith and moral values.

I will not confuse readers any further with my personal musings, although I hope these comments may help people outside Northern Ireland to understand the complexities facing Christians here. I will turn instead to three thoughts about what this demographic shift means for our society and especially for Christians.

Firstly, the psychological impact on Protestants in Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. Coming hot on the heels of the Queen’s death and soon after the DUP was overtaken by Sinn Fein as the largest party (a fact King Charles mentioned when visiting Belfast), this is quite a blow. Indeed, working class Protestant communities in Northern Ireland have been experiencing a serious decline in confidence for a long time. They have an in-built siege mentality going back to the plantation and a series of historical events from 1641 onwards. They also have high rates of deprivation and low rates of employment and educational attainment. These communities need care and attention from politicians. Above all they need Christ.

Secondly, following on from that, Christians must think carefully about their role and mission in Northern Ireland. I was saddened to find in my PhD research into church planting in Northern Ireland around ten years ago that there was inattention to the most needy areas. Most church planting was in places which already had many evangelical churches and among middle class people. We need a fresh gospel vision for working class Protestants and for Roman Catholics as a whole. We will need to think carefully about what that looks like and we must strip away the unhealthy connections between the gospel and an ethno-political Protestant identity, but people need Christ.

Thirdly, politicians in both Northern Ireland and Ireland (I realise this is confusing, but the country formerly known as ‘the Republic of Ireland’ now designates itself simply ‘Ireland’) must work in earnest to find a template for a shared future on this island. I am not predicting that Ireland will be unified politically in the immediate term. Surveys have long shown a significant number of Northern Catholics who favour remaining in the UK. At the same time, however, the 2021 Census also showed an increase in those identifying as Irish only and a decrease in people saying they are British only, a finding often attributed to Brexit. Voting patterns also show a shift towards Nationalist parties (for a united Ireland) and I wonder if this new finding of a Catholic majority may add further impetus to support for unification. If that is to work, there will need to be a new Irish identity that can include Northern Protestants. The current flag, national anthem and monuments of Ireland simply will not work for this group. I guess there will be a devolution arrangement within a united Ireland for the six counties that are currently Northern Ireland at least initially. With or without that, though, we need a new vision of Irishness.

My prayer is that within a new vision for Ireland, the island’s Christian heritage will not be forgotten. Indeed, I pray that it will be renewed in our time. Perhaps the humbling of Protestants in Northern Ireland - we who have long been too proud in our majority status and self-righteous attitudes - can help move us into mission to both traditional communities and those who identify with neither. I pray it because all Ireland’s people need Christ.

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