I came across an article today in a morning paper, where Marc Coleman, a well-known economist and ex-Irish Times journalist, is promoting a new book of his, entitled “The Best is Yet to Come”. In it, he argues forcibly that Ireland’s population could hit 12 million people before the end of the century. This would create an economic boom (the bit he presumably describes as “the best”) of unprecedented proportions, he claims. I am sure it would! Our current population is 4.2 million, so the population would have to almost treble to reach 12 million.
Here are the main reasons why this could happen.
In 1841, the last census before the Irish famine (1845-49), we (meaning the counties comprising the 26 counties of the Irish Republic) had a population of 6,528,799. Due to the famine and subsequent emigrations, this had dropped dramatically to 5,111,557 by 1851. It continued to drop over the next century, aside from some minor wobbles, reaching 3,221,823 by 1901 (less than half of that 60 years earlier) and a low of 2,818,314 by 1961. Since then, more or less, it has climbed steadily but unspectacularly. By 1996 it had reached 3,626,087. [You can view the entire statistics for the period 1841-2002 for Ireland on the Central Statistics Office’s page: http://beyond2020.cso.ie/Census/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=1822)].
But it has recently accelerated dramatically. The Celtic Tiger has sucked in immigrants; the emigration of Irish citizens has slowed hugely; and the birth rate has increased. By 2006, the latest census has revealed 4,239,848 people now living in Ireland (excluding Northern Ireland), an increase of 16.9% over 10 years. At that rate (16.9% every 10 years) in 70 years, our population will increase to 12.64 million.
In thinking about what Ireland’s population should be, we have to bear in mind a whole complex gamut of factors, including history, geography, economics, emigration, culture, and societal attitudes to birth and death. History and economics explain why we showed such a drastic drop in population figures from 1841 to now. Geography might set an upper limit on how many people can occupy a given land area (e.g. Canada’s population density is quite low). Emigration and immigration depend on economic opportunities, along with other cultural factors. Traditionally, we are a nation of large families, but this is no longer true, and is anyway so changeable and shifting all the time that it is hard to estimate where it will be over the long term.
But let’s cut through all this complexity and put forward one possible scenario: that we should have a comparable density to the UK, since, in the main, our Island is as flat, productive, and easily navigable as our closest neighbour.
Broadly speaking, we should expect over the long term that our population density should trend back to that of comparable European nations, such as Italy (193 people per square kilometre), the United Kingdom (246), France (110), or Germany (232). Let’s take a middle figure of 200, somewhere between Britain and Germany, and Italy and France. It is as good as any other figure! That would indicate a baseline population of 14 million (we have an area of 70,000 square kilometres.)
Another argument considers what would have happened had we not suffered the series of catastrophic reversals of fortunes that we did do in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, what would have happened had we kept pace with Britain’s population growth rate over that period? In 1841, England’s population was roughly 15 million people. Now, it approaches 50 million, an increase of 333% or more. Applied to Ireland, that would indicate a population of nearly 22 million people!
All three arguments presented above try to argue that Ireland’s population, by some natural law or other, should in fact be much higher than it is currently. Given the recent rate of increase of that population, we could reach 12 million people or more by 2077. But some scepticism should be attached to these figures. For a start, nothing ever goes up in a straight line. Our population cannot simply grow at a rate of 16.9% every decade for the next 70 years without experiencing some change (up or down). In other words, it is foolhardy to extrapolate out from the present trends.
Secondly, where will all these extra 8 million people come from? Clearly, the vast majority of that increase will have to be of immigrants, typically from other EU states (the rest will be indigenous births). That will cause great disruption to our culture, our homogenous racial mix, and our sense of identity. Under current EU legislation, there is nothing we can do about it. We cannot refuse immigrants from any EU country, except for Romania and Bulgaria. Even that will change over time. However, these stresses to our identity will inevitably produce a backlash of a sort. Perhaps it will create an anti-immigration party or platform, calling for wide controls on immigration. In any case, even without legislation or political change, why do we believe that immigrants will want to come into Ireland every year over the next 70 years? Perhaps we will even have a hard time convincing the ones that are here now to stay!
We’d have to boost employment to perhaps 6 or 7 million (from the current 2 million). This is mainly why Marc Coleman predicts a boom that will make the Celtic Tiger look puny in comparison. But can we expect growth rates of 7 or 8% a year for the forseeable future? Hardly. Without that sort of boom over a period of 60 or 70 years, we’d never be capable of absorbing that many immigrants without huge unemployment.
If Ireland’s population is really headed for 12 million, then we ought to start thinking through the implications of that. First, we will need huge infrastructural improvements, including metros, railway lines, motorways, hospitals, schools, churches, and so on. Secondly, it will cause massive changes to our self-identify. We need to prepare for an Ireland where, like Texas or southern parts of California, the majority of the people living here do not speak English as a first language. We need to tackle conspicuous racism before it rears its ugly head.
We need to plan for housing an extra 8 million people – perhaps requiring upwards or 3 or 4 million new homes. That would only amount to around 55,000 new houses per year, over 70 years, which is already exceeded by the current construction industry (output last year was closer to 80,000 units). So it is achieveable. But we have to shift to higher density housing or else risk building a city around Dublin that reaches to Athlone, Dundalk, and Wexford. We need changes to planning, construction, and transport.
Where is the debate on all of this potential change? As usual, our politicians lack the foresight, or willpower, to start a debate on this issue. It will profoundly change Ireland, perhaps beyond recognition. We need to start thinking through the vast implications (which I have barely skimmed here) in order to either meet the challenges directly, or else try to avoid them altogether. Are we happy to see the population drive ever upwards? Will we be happy to share our beautiful land with millions of Eastern Europeans or others? Who will be the President of Ireland in the year 2077 – Lech Jserilack?