One of the things about demography that makes it endlessly fascinating is that for an art which is supposed to help predict future needs, it is incredibly unpredictable. Former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald reviews some of the massive changes in Irish demography in the last forty five years.
“…within little more than a decade after 1960 we had moved from being the European country with the highest net emigration rate to being a country with, for a decade, net immigration. And, more recently, we have moved within six years from recording the second-lowest marriage rate in western Europe to having one of the highest.
And, of course, between 1845 and 1960 we had moved from having one of the densest populations in Europe, matched only by Belgium and two Italian city states, to a situation where our density of population had become the lowest in Europe outside Scandinavia.
Looking back 45 years, we can see that the recovery in our economy after 1960 cut emigration to a fraction of its former level, with the result that within two decades the number of people aged under 27 had risen by a quite astonishing 70 per cent – and, with a rapidly-rising marriage rate in the earlier part of this period, the birth-rate for this young age group had almost doubled”.
In most of Europe during that recent period the birth-rate has continued to decline. Only in a small minority of European countries – France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Ireland – have increases in the birth-rate taken place since the mid-1990s.
And Ireland has had the largest increase, because in our case the impact of increased fertility among those over 30 has been reinforced by a significant increase in the total number of women of child-bearing age – which is now one-seventh higher than back in the mid-1990s.
In the early part of the present decade part of the increase in our birth-rate that was then taking place may have reflected a new practice of women coming to Ireland to have a baby here – a practice which until the Constitution and laws were changed in 2004 secured Irish citizenship for the child in question.
The recent stabilisation in the total number of births here may be explained by a fall-off in the number of such opportunistic non-national births following the changes in our Constitution and laws that eliminated this loop-hole to Irish citizenship. This decline may have obscured some recent continuing rise in the birth-rate of Irish nationals. An important factor influencing the drop in births that occurred between 1980 and 1994 had, of course, been the huge decline that took place during this period in the number of young married women.