The anxiously awaited result of the 2001 census in Northern Ireland, announced yesterday, gave encouragement to both Protestant and Catholic politicians. The British government is committed to a referendum on Northern Ireland becoming part of the Irish Republic if the demographics suggest that such a change might be supported by a majority; the proportions of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is therefore a hot political issue. Yesterday's figures showed the make-up as 53 per cent Protestants, 44 per cent Catholics; ten years ago it was 58 per cent and 42 per cent respectively; forty years ago it was 63 per cent and 35 per cent. The gap is narrowing, but perhaps not as quickly or as much as Sinn Fein and other Republicans had expected.

The detailed figures will be pored over by the experts for a long while but one important point has already emerged the birth rate in Catholic families appears to be declining, although it is still higher than in Protestant families, and therefore the gap between the two religions may close in the future much more slowly than had been anticipated.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where these things matter politically.
The interesting thing is whether this will continue to be the case as Sinn Fein takes an accepted and influential role in local politics. It is also worth asking whether it can be assumed that when given the chance the great majority of Catholics would vote for union with the Irish Republic.