Statistics which show how similar we are

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

Why do governments so often choose to release some of their most interesting publications in the ‘dog days’ of the summer holidays? At the end of July the two Statistics Offices in Belfast and Cork quietly published the fourth edition of their compilation Ireland, North and South: A Statistical Profile1. Inevitably the media missed it completely (or weren’t interested anyway). So here, two months late, are a few titbits from this carefully assembled comparison of statistics (which are usually for the period up to 2006-2007).

The first thing to say is that the overall impression is of two societies which are very much alike in most important respects. I noted the words ‘similar’ and ‘very similar’ in the commentaries on everything from population growth to the age when mothers give birth (the two Irish jurisdictions continue to have the highest birth rates in Europe); from housing stock to household size and expenditure; from rates of heart disease to cigarette smoking and drug use; from falling unemployment rates to the collapse of agricultural employment; from broadband use to the purchase of ‘luxury’ cars.

One of the most telling, if slightly surprising, indicators of the coming together of the two societies is in the lists of the most popular babies’ names. Despite what one might suppose – that English-sounding names would predominate in the North with Irish-sounding names more common in the South – the choice of children’s names is remarkably similar in both jurisdictions, with Chloe, Katie, Emma, Jack, James and Conor dominating the lists (the main exceptions are Sean and Ciara in the South and Matthew in the North).

The relatively few differences are interesting but often unsurprising. Crime is rising in the Republic but falling in Northern Ireland. Alcoholic drink consumption, on the other hand, is going down in the Republic but increasing in the North. Twice as many people live in local authority rented housing in the North compared to the South, with overcrowding worse in the Southern social rented sector than in the Northern. The number of ‘curative care’ hospital beds per head of population is much higher in the North, but then the Republic has the lowest proportionate number of such beds of any European country outside Spain and Finland.

Over one-third of people employed in Northern Ireland work in the public sector, compared to just over a fifth in the Republic. On the other hand, the gap between higher public sector and lower private sector wages in the South is double what it is in the North. In the Republic 1.6% of those not in the labour force are unavailable for work because of sickness or disability compared to a massive 9.4% in Northern Ireland (I have never fully understood why the North’s sickness and disability rates are so high – is this a legacy of the ‘Troubles’?).

One area where there are major differences is in the economy. The Celtic Tiger effect is most obvious in the statistics for the growth of new VAT-registered enterprises: the number of such companies rose by 33% in the Republic between 2001 and 2006, but only by 9% in the North. Manufacturing exports as a percentage of Gross Value Added in the Republic stood at nearly 54% in 2005 (they were a huge 76.5% four years earlier), compared to only 19.3% in Northern Ireland (almost unchanged since 2001). Overall trade between the two jurisdictions rose by 65% in the fifteen years up to 2007.

Another area of significant differences is education. The first striking differential is in the numbers going to school. Pupil numbers in the Republic of Ireland rose by 0.5% in 2000-2006, whereas they fell by over 5% in the same period in Northern Ireland. At primary level the difference was even more marked: primary pupil numbers in the Republic rose by 3.6%, whereas they fell by 6.5% in the North.

The figures also show that the South is far more effective at keeping its young people in school than the North. Of the nearly 56,900 students who in 2004 took the Junior Certificate exam in the South (aged 15-16), 54,100 went on to take the school-leaving Leaving Certificate two years later. In striking contrast, of the more than 26,000 school students who sat the GCSE in 2004 in Northern Ireland, only 11,750 – just 45% -survived to sit A-Levels two years later (although this latter figure does not include the significant number who went on to take their A-Levels in further education colleges).

Overall these North-South statistics for 2000-2007 bear out the conclusion of a fascinating 2005 study of values and attitudes in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland based on data from the European Values Surveys and European Social Surveys between 1999 and 2003. The authors, Tony Fahey, Bernadette Hayes and Richard Sinnott, concluded: “The two societies and the two traditions are characterised by major similarities as well as by self-evident differences. Put another way, the grounds for consensus within and between the two societies are almost as extensive as the grounds for conflict.”2

Andy Pollak

1Ireland North and South: A Statistical Profile, Central Statistics Office (CSO) and Northern Ireland Statistical Research Agency (NISRA)

2 Tony Fahey, Bernadette Hayes and Richard Sinnott, Conflict and Consensus: A study of values and attitudes in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Institute of Public Administration, Dublin.

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.