The traditional notion of a Northern Ireland family has been turned on its head by new Government figures revealing that almost 40% of children born here are outside of marriage — and divorce rates are the second highest on record.
Statistics released from the Department of Finance and Personnel showed that in Northern Ireland last year the number of births increased by 5% to 25,631. Overall, 39% of these births occurred outside marriage. This varied from area to area, with the highest levels in Belfast (57%) and Derry (50%).
This number was considerably less in Omagh and Magherafelt, with only a quarter of children born outside of marriage.
Meanwhile, the number of marriages in 2008 decreased and divorce rates, though slightly down, were the second highest on record (2007 was the highest).
Experts fear a growing trend for single parent families across the UK could signal the end of the traditional nuclear family and lead to social problems.
Pip Jaffa from the Parents Advice Centre in Belfast warned against generalising against single parent families — but said that research does suggest this could lead to multiple issues for children. She said: “In a large number of single parent families or divorced parents you do see problems in later life.
“Children can suffer huge emotional stress following the fallout of divorce and research shows children do better when there are two parents.”
Father Michael Canny, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Derry, said the figures came as no surprise “as I see so many single parent families coming in for baptism”.
“Though it is a tremendous concern to us, it is not always the case that the children have no chance in later life,” he said.
The DFP figures were released soon after a study by the Family and Parenting Institute that argued children will increasingly be looked after by grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings as the nuclear family breaks down.
Meanwhile, as the population ages, caring for the elderly will be one of the top concerns for families, said the study by the Family and Parenting Institute.
The organisation's chief executive, Dr Katherine Rake, said the role of fathers would continue to change.
She said: “Mothers have been at the forefront of social change over the last few decades as they have moved in unprecedented numbers into paid work.
“But in the next decade it will be men. This will open up more opportunities than ever before for men to get involved in family life — the question then is, how will they respond?
“The report highlights the importance of fathers and mothers both being involved with their children whether they are together or apart.”
The report, called Family Trends, found that women are having babies later. In 1971, the average at their first child's birth was 23.7 years, now it is 27.5.