As every year, the latest annual report of the Registrar General, published in December 2007, contains a wealth of information about the structure of Northern Ireland's population.
Most of the information is fairly neutral, or is difficult to disaggregate by religion (or 'community', to use the currently fashionable term). For instance, data that would be fascinating to know in relation to the natural increase or decrease of the two main politico-religious groups is not available here. We can see, therefore, how many births and deaths there were in 2006, but not how many births to Catholic or Protestant mothers, or how many deaths of Protestants or Catholics.
Nonetheless, in two areas the report gives an interesting insight into the evolution of the religious balance.
Firstly, in Appendix 2 the statistics on birth rates are broken down by local government area, which allows a very rough proxy to be made for birth rates by religious group. The correlation between the proportion of Catholics in the child-bearing cohort of the population (2001 Census Table S306: Age By Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In); ages 20-39 only), and the birth rate (expressed in births per 1000 of the population) is quite clear:
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The coefficient of correlation between the two columns of figures is 0.60, which shows a fairly good strength of relationship. If curious little Moyle is removed from the calculation, the correlation coefficient shoots up to 0.72.
What this means is simple – Catholics are still having more children than Protestants. The Schools Census shows that there are more Catholic kids in Northern Ireland's schools than Protestant (and other) kids, and the evidence of the birth rates shows that this will continue, and probably accelerate. If there is no imbalance in migration patterns this points clearly to a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland within the next generation or so.
The second interesting thing to emerge from the 2006 Annual Report of the Registrar General is the religious breakdown of the marriages that took place in 2006. In Section 1.9 – Marriages – the report notes that "Of the 5,813 religious marriages in 2006, 52 per cent were Roman Catholic ceremonies, 20 per cent Presbyterian, 16 per cent Church of Ireland, four per cent Methodist and eight per cent other denominations." The slight predominance of Catholic over non-Catholic marriages reflects a trend that has been fairly constant for some years. The graphic in the Annual Report shows this clearly:
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The proportion of Catholic marriages has remained fairly stable, while the 'Protestant and other' proportion has been falling. This mirrors the increasing Catholic proportion of the 'marriage age' cohort, but the increasing number of civil marriages means that no concrete conclusions can be drawn. However, anecdotal evidence points towards the possibility that civil ceremonies are more common amongst the previously-married, who tend to be older and less likely to have more children, whereas the 'first marriages', from which the children are usually born, take place more often than not in a church. If this is true, the effect of higher Catholic birth rates will be increased by the fact that more of the marrying couples are Catholic.
Overall, therefore, the evidence points towards an increasing Catholic proportion in the young-adult population, which in turn is producing proportionately more children. The outcome will be the continuation of the increase in the overall proportion of the population of Northern Ireland that is Catholic, leading almost inevitably to a Catholic majority.