The Catholic minority, known as nationalists because they aspired to be reunited with the rest of Ireland, had no such expectations. For 50 years, unionism dominated the state, instituting a comprehensive system of discrimination in housing, education, employment and voting. Sectarianism was state policy — Protestants were instructed by their leaders to distrust and exclude Catholics, who were outnumbered two to one — and the police force was armed. Britain turned a blind eye, as did the Republic of Ireland.
But discontent among nationalists inevitably built, finding form in the late 1960s in a civil rights campaign that aimed to secure basic rights for the Catholic minority. Outraged, the unionist state reacted by attempting to beat peaceful protesters off the streets. The British Army, whose intervention quickly showed itself to be on the side of unionism, was confronted by the Irish Republican Army, which responded with its own brutal and sectarian campaign. In 1972 the British government suspended the regime in Belfast and placed Northern Ireland under its direct rule.
For almost three decades, the conflict raged. Around 4,000 people, out of a population of fewer than 2 million, were killed; communities were torn apart. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the violence and inaugurated a power-sharing executive, in which parties representing the two main communities operate in mandatory coalition. It was ratified by 70 percent of people in a referendum. The war was over.
The arrangement stumbled along for close to two decades, never fully working yet crucially keeping the peace. But Britain’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union threatened the state’s always fragile constitutional relationships. And when the Conservative government settled Brexit with a protocol that established a border for goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, it effectively acknowledged the province as a place apart.
Northern Ireland now has borders with Britain and Ireland — and it is no longer a majority-Protestant state. The last census, in 2011, showed that the Protestant population had declined to 48 percent and the Catholic minority had risen to 45 percent. The Protestant community is aging, too: In 2011, only among those over 60 did it have a significant majority, and among schoolchildren, Catholics were the larger group. The results of a census to be published next year may well show an overall Catholic majority.