The Department of Education has recently released data on the religion of pupils for the 2020-2021 school year. This data has been compiled yearly since the 2000-2001 school year. The religion of pupils for primary and secondary schools is recorded for Protestant, Catholic, Other Christian, Non-Christian and No Religion/Not Recorded.
Since 2018 the Other Christian, Non-Christian and No Religion categories have been combined into one. However, based on trends since 2000 it is possible to give estimates of the different groups in the 2020-2021 school census.
I will compare the results of the 2020-2021 school census with that of the 2000-2001 school census.
The 2000-2021 school census recorded 328,044 primary and secondary school pupils and the 2020-2021 school census recorded 328,627 primary and secondary school pupils. The number of students has been remarkably stable over that 20 year period. However, that unchanged number of total students does not reveal some important underlying changes.
Protestant 2000-2001 140,337
Net Change -35,222
Catholic 2000-2001 166,311
Net Change +176
Other Christian 2000-2001 4,275
Net Change +9,725
Non-Christian 2000-2001 1,110
Net Change +3,090
No Religion 2000-2001 16,011
Net Change 22,814
The number of Catholic students is unchanged from 20 years ago. There has been a large decline of over 35,000 students who are Protestant.
Since the number of total students and Catholic students is unchanged, that 35,000 decline in Protestants has been offset by a 35,000 increase in the number of students who are Non-Christian, Other Christian and No Religion.
The 4,200 Non-Christians would be mainly Muslim and Hindu. The No Religion group are those who are not being raised in any religion.
The Other Christian group is very mixed. The Other Christian students are much more likely to attend Integrated schools. These students would include the Eastern Orthodox children of Romanian, Bulgarian, Latvian, Greek, etc. immigrants. Others would be children of mixed Catholic-Protestant marriages who are being raised as Christian but not belonging to a particular Catholic or Protestant denomination. Some would be Christian related such as Mormons.
In looking at the percentages of the different religions of the different groups in the 2020-2021 census these are the results:
Other Christian 4.26%
No Religion 11.81%
It is clear that there has been a dramatic decline in the Protestant percentage of the student age population.
This will have major implications for future elections since all of these students will be of voting age within 13 years at the latest for the youngest and 1 year for the oldest.
Some may claim that the No Religion students are future Unionist voters. However, multiple opinion polls in recent years show that 50% of those with No Religion prefer the Alliance-Green parties, 25% nationalist parties, and 25% unionist parties. Since approximately 15% of Protestants vote for Alliance and other non unionist parties these new voters will gradually introduce a declining unionist total vote.
The unionist parties share of these new voters will struggle to exceed 30% with the other 70% voting for nationalist or non sectarian parties.
The unionist political parties do not seem to be aware of or be preparing for the coming demographic changes in the future electorate as evidenced in the school census figures above.