The number of Catholics in Northern Ireland could soon outnumber Protestants in 2021, an expert projected. This significant development matters to a region that largely identified with the United Kingdom with its Protestant descendants nearly 100 years ago.
Dr. Paul Nolan, who studies social trends, told BBC News that there might be more Catholics than Protestants when the state celebrates its centenary three years from now. The trend, however, shouldn't be a cause for alarm for unionists or those who follow North Ireland's main political ideology.
"The future of unionism depends entirely upon one thing - and I mean unionism with a small 'u' - it depends on winning the support of people who do not regard themselves to be unionists with a capital 'U,'" the expert said.
A census from 2011 revealed that the Protestant population in Northern Ireland was just three percent higher than the Catholic population. The numbers of Catholics in different age groups, however, were significantly higher than the Protestants, except among those over 60 years old. Catholics among school-aged kids also outnumbered Protestants with a 51 percent to 37 percent difference.
A socio-political and religious conflict marred Northern Ireland's history during the late 20th century. Unionists or loyalists, who were mostly Protestants, wanted Northern Ireland to stick with the United Kingdom while nationalists, who were mostly Catholics, wanted to unite with Ireland and leave the U.K.
That period, known as The Troubles, gave rise to tension and violence between two religious communities with differences in political ideologies. The conflict pacified just before the new millennium, but its impact still affects Northern Ireland today.
In 2017, Catholic families were forced to leave their homes as hate groups identified with loyalists mounted threats and protests. Authorities and political leaders stepped in to assure the safety of the families.
In recent times, polls indicated a growing support for a united Ireland, which prompted Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster to say that she would likely leave Northern Ireland if that happened. Nationalist party Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald, however, expressed that she's open to a dialogue with the unionist group.
"As far as I'm concerned nothing is taboo," McDonald said. "Let's talk about the flag, let's talk about the anthem, let's talk about every nuance and every aspect of Irish life north and south," she added.