BELFAST, Northern Ireland: Census results released this week reported that, for the first time, Northern Ireland has more Catholics than Protestants, a historic shift that could drive support for the province to leave the UK and join a united Ireland.
The shift comes a century after the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921, which sought to maintain a Protestant "unionist" majority loyal to the UK, as a counterweight to the newly independent and mostly Catholic Irish republic.
Ulster's population was split roughly two-thirds Protestant to one-third Catholic at that time.
Data from the 2021 census showed that 43.5 percent of respondents identified as Protestants, while 45.7 percent identified as Catholic or were brought up Catholic. The previous census in 2011 showed Protestants outnumbered Catholics 48 percent to 45 percent.
"Today's results are another clear indication that historic change is happening across this island," said Michelle O'Neill, regional leader of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, as quoted by Reuters.
The shift was a further reason why planning should begin for a referendum on a united Ireland, said Sinn Fein, which has called for a vote since the UK's decision to leave the EU in 2016, which was opposed by 56 percent of Northern Irish voters.
The British government has the sole discretion on holding a vote in Northern Ireland on Irish unification, and opinion polls show a clear majority favoring remaining in the UK.