Objective. Previous studies have shown a positive association between colorectal cancer and Barrett's oesophagus, but this association is disputed. No population-based studies have examined the incidence of this cancer in patients with Barrett's oesophagus. Material and methods. The present study comprised a population-based cohort of patients with Barrett's oesophagus (constructed using pathology reports of all oesophageal biopsies in Northern Ireland 1993-99; cohort subclassified according to whether specialized intestinal metaplasia (SIM) was present, absent, or not commented on in biopsies). Cases of colorectal cancer were identified by linking with the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry. The comparison group used was the general population in Northern Ireland. Results. A total of 2969 patients with Barrett's oesophagus were followed for a total of 14,014 person-years (mean 4.7 years). SIM was present in 1670 patients (56.2%), absent in 545 (18.4%) and not commented on in 754 (25.4%). Colorectal cancer was diagnosed in 39 patients; 22 patients had cancer diagnosed at least 6 months after diagnosis of Barrett's oesophagus. There was no increased risk of colorectal cancer: the standardized incidence ratio (SIR) for cancer diagnosed at least 6 months after entry into the cohort was 0.82 (95% CI, 0.48-1.17); this risk did not alter with SIM status or gender. To assess a possible effect of diagnostic bias, we calculated SIRs for cancers occurring after at least 3 months, after at least 1 month and at any time after diagnosis of Barrett's oesophagus. These were 0.94 (0.57-1.30), 1.09 (0.69-1.48) and 1.46 (1.00-1.92), respectively. Conclusions. The incidence of colorectal cancer was not elevated in patients with Barrett's oesophagus. Diagnostic bias may explain why previous studies have found an association.