‘I don’t feel threatened that there’s more of them’: Locals react to NI census

For the first time, Catholics outnumber Protestants in the North, but what do people on the street think?

On a red brick wall behind a Methodist church in a staunchly loyalist enclave of Belfast, the letters KAT — “kill all Taigs” — are graffitied in blue spray paint.

An elderly couple hurry past the sectarian slur as they make their way to morning worship at a Tiger’s Bay gospel hall.

The results of the 2021 Census have just have been published and Edward (85) has learned from the 10am news bulletin the exact percentage of people identifying as Catholics, which for the first time is higher than those from a Protestant background.

The development has sparked debate about the North’s constitutional future.

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“It doesn’t concern me, no,” says Edward, who doesn’t wish to give his surname. “People are too sensible to do anything about it. We’re all right the way we are and there shouldn’t be any change with the way the country is run. We’re British, there’s no argument about that. Though there’s some people from the other side don’t like you saying you’re British. That’s the way it is and it shouldn’t be like that. But they have their views and we have ours.”

Living close to an interface that has seen some of the worst sectarian violence over the past 30 years, Tiger’s Bay residents are reluctant to speak about shifting demographics and identity.

On a miserable grey morning, its streets are practically deserted and business is slow in the few shops that are open.

Mourners are gathering for a funeral and a passing neighbour, Elaine Tumelty, puts her hood up in the rain as she dashes to the shop.

Tumelty was born two streets away and is aware of the census news. “It came up on my phone and I totally ignored it. Then I was watching TV and a bit came on the news about the religious percentages. My family are all in mixed marriages so it just makes no difference at all to me,” she says. “I came back to live here seven years ago when I was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer. I’ve got the all-clear and want to get on with living my life.”

For neighbour Debbie, however, it is significant that Catholics are outnumbering Protestants for the first time since the North was created over a century ago.

“Yes, it does matter to me. I just feel you can’t go anywhere without it being shoved in your face — but I don’t feel threatened that there’s more of them.

“I am British and would never hold an Irish passport.”

She laughs before adding: “My son does, though, he has both passports. He travels a lot so in some places it’s easier if you’ve got an Irish one.”

The only bustle of activity in the pre-lunchtime streets is a barber shop packed with young customers. Loud music is playing in the corner premises which has lain derelict for years.

Owner Jay Millar, from the nearby loyalist Rathcoole estate, turns down the volume and is happy to talk about the figures.

“It doesn’t matter to me, I married a Catholic from west Belfast. Years ago you would never have got away with that in Rathcoole,” he jokes. “I suppose it depends on where you live and where you grew up. Some people are conditioned in a way if they have sectarian families.

“But the way things are now, I don’t think there’s any room for that. This country has been through enough. We’re focusing on building our business as we teach as well and do a lot of outreach work with the homeless community.

“It’s sad down here in terms of development, a lot of looks like it’s still in the ‘90s. All the sectarian problems have dragged people back for long enough.”

Within walking distance are rows of similarly quiet streets in the nationalist New Lodge.

Last summer, controversy erupted over an Eleventh Night bonfire at a flashpoint between the two communities that led to a Stormont ministerial intervention. A legal bid to remove the pyre failed.

Mary is hurrying back from the first of her five cleaning jobs and checking on her late mother’s house. A practising Catholic, she is “delighted” to hear today’s news.

“It’s getting us more on the map,” she says. “I identify as Irish and religion is important to me. For years we were in the minority and ignored. You saw by the results of the last election that things are starting to come around this time. People wanted to get their voices heard and went to vote.

“I have friends on the other side and we have a bit of banter about it. My friends are staunch loyalists but for me religion is not connected to politics. Church is a very big part of my life and my children were brought up with no sectarianism.”

With 9.3 per cent of the population declaring they do not belong to any religion — up from 5.6 per cent in 2011 — the census also found that the North has become a more diverse society over the past decade.

Youth worker Kerri Leigh Bright (32) is from the New Lodge and is involved in cross-community projects at the nearby Girdwood Community Hub, located on the site of a former British army barracks.

“For a lot of older generations, these census figures would mean a lot. Historically it’s something significant, I recognise that. But being a community worker, we’re bringing young people together from all different backgrounds to have more opportunities.”

Her visiting friend, Palestinian woman Abeer Abu Libdeh, lives in Jerusalem and is co-director of a peace project.

“This is my third time here and I think it’s really important people don’t identify themselves under a specific religious category.

“Kerri identifies herself as Irish but I know she doesn’t make a differentiation between Catholic and Protestant; that’s what matters here so people start feeling both the same.”

Bright adds: “Abeer is 100 per cent. What we’re trying to portray and promote in our youth hub is that we’re all the same.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times