A snapshot of how we were and a key blueprint for the Ireland of the future

Far more than a snapshot of how Ireland looked on Apr 10, 2011, the census figures also provide an important blueprint for how our country will look in the future.

This is Ireland — the first report summarising the results of last year’s census which was published yesterday — will act as a template for much of the key decisions to be made on the country’s infrastructural needs.

On an individual basis, the census might often be regarded as a sign of the meddlesome state seeking a large amount of confidential, personal data via enumerators calling to the door as one’s favourite TV soap comes on air. (Not for nothing does the joke exist that many people feel like a census form – as they have been broken down by age, sex and religion.)

However, the importance of a census as a means for the planning of society has been recognised as far back as biblical times and beyond, with evidence that they were first held in Egypt in 3340 BC.

Reflecting its importance, most countries now carry out a census at least once a decade with the Central Statistics Office in Ireland conducting a population head count here every five years.

Without argument, the CSO’s work on the census is one of the most crucial activities carried out by any state organisation. It is the fundamental tool used by the Government and other state agencies to properly plan for society’s future needs which arise from changes in the demographic breakdown of the country’s population by various headings including age, sex, marital status, location, housing and ethnic background.

It provides the raw data on which key decisions can be made for the provision of basic services like hospitals, schools, housing public transport, recreational facilities, commercial centres and other infrastructure in the years ahead.

A crude rule of thumb suggests a growing population with a rising birth rate augurs well for economic growth. In such circumstances, the future looks bright as Ireland’s population has continued to rise — up by 348,404 to 4,588,252 since 2006. It comes at a time when many other developed countries, especially in western Europe are experiencing an decline in population.

By comparing data from previous censuses, the 2012 publication also documents patterns of change in the Irish nation — one which is increasingly diverse as the overall number of non-Irish nationals rose by 124,624, or almost 30%, over the past five years to 544,357.

In particular, the census also provides an insight into some of the changes that were wrought on the country during the transformation from a boom economy to the current financial recession.

For instance, the number of occupied dwellings has risen by 13%, or 187,100 units, since 2006, a startling figure to highlight the extent of the construction explosion at the height of the Celtic Tiger, especially given the sector has been in freefall over the past few years.

The oversupply of property that resulted from such a property bubble is also evident as the census reveals there were 290,000 vacant homes — an increase of 23,000 over the past five years. It represents a vacancy rate of 14.5%

There is also a strong trend to smaller but more households — a development that is probably linked to a number of factors including increasing longevity and higher rates of divorce.

Another distinctive shift is the growing urbanisation of Ireland with 62% of citizens now living in 197 towns and cities with a population of 1,500 or more.

However, one of the most significant results is the growing dependency ratio which measures the number of children and pensioners for every adult of a working age. It rose from 45.8% in 2006 to 49.3% last year.

It is an important statistic, especially in terms of the ability of the State to provide social welfare payments to vulnerable members of society. The growth in the dependency ratio, due to a combination of a rising birth rate and greater longevity, hints that it will continue to rise in the decades ahead with the consequent pressure that it will place on taxation of people in employment.

Elsewhere, the census suggests 1.7 million people speak Irish — a rather vague statistic based on a single subjective question “can you speak Irish” — which made no effort to ascertain actual fluency. In contrast, foreign nationals were offered a multi-choice answer on their ability to speak English.

Another CSO report on the 2012 Census due in June will provide a wealth of data on other socio-economic factors such as employment, occupations, education and skills.

This is Ireland might not attract as much interest as other recent state publications but, in its own way, it says as much about Irish society as the recent report of the Mahon Tribunal.

* The results of the latest census can be accessed on the CSO website on www.cso.ie


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