The numerical supremacy of Protestants over the Catholic population has dwindled to no more than a few percentage points -- the result of years of large-scale political, social and economic changes, the British daily reported today.
One statistician calculates the population could consist of 50% Protestants, 46% Catholics and 4% others. Another estimate puts the ratio at 51% Protestant, 45% Catholic and 4% others.
The private opinion of a third demographic observer is that Protestants may make up just 49%. One expert takes the view that, if the Protestant majority has not already disappeared, it will do so within a few years.
Statistics show a clear Catholic majority in the school-age population. Of children in Northern Ireland´s schools last year, 173,000 were Catholic, 146,000 Protestant and 22,000 other.
The estimate that Catholics comprise 45% or more of the population constitutes a huge rise from their traditional position of one-third. Northern Ireland´s three cities -- Belfast, Londonderry and Armagh -- all now have Catholic majorities. So do at least 13 of the 26 local council areas.
Given the demographic changes, the balance of power between nationalist and Unionist is fundamentally shifting, with Protestants believing they are steadily declining both in numbers and political power.
The old ratio of two-thirds Protestant to one-third Catholic, the backdrop to politics for so many decades, has gone. In its place is a very different mathematical and political model, with the 2001 census results expected to confirm that rapid movement is continuing.
On the streets, the Protestant perception of losing ground can have violent results. This was vividly seen in the recent rioting in the north Belfast neighborhood of Ardoyne, where loyalists harassed young Catholic schoolgirls in a bid to stop them from attending school in a Protestant area.
Local Protestants presented themselves as a dwindling community battling against Catholic "encroachment." They complained of a twofold alienation, claiming Catholics were making ground both politically and geographically at Protestant expense.
In political terms the advances of nationalism are clear enough, embodied as they are in the Good Friday Agreement, which gives Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army) and other nationalists places at the highest level of devolved government.
On the Protestant and Unionist side recent debate has centered on a phrase used by John Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who declared: "Northern Ireland must not become a cold place for Protestants, or we will have failed." Reid noted that Unionist confidence has declined while the Catholic community "breathes confidence, coherence, dynamism and energy."
Population figures reflect Catholic increases. And each year roughly 5,000 more Protestants than Catholics die, because the Protestant population has an older age profile.
Emigration patterns are almost entirely a mystery, but most of the signs point to a reversal of traditional patterns, which used to see many more Catholics than Protestants emigrating.
There is now a "brain drain" of Protestant teen-agers going to universities and colleges in England and especially Scotland. Many of them stay to work in Britain rather than returning home, while more Catholic young people seem to go back to Northern Ireland after college.
The Independent quoted one observer who said: "Protestants are losing on all the known demographic indicators. On births, Catholics are ahead while more Protestants are dying. These factors are changing the population balance, though at a fairly slow rate."
The source added: "The one factor that could change the demographic balance rapidly is emigration; it is the joker in the pack. About 20,000 a year leave here and about 20,000 a year come in, and we don´t know anything about them."