Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland population boom means it’s never been so crowded

Census reveals 7% rise in number of people living here

By Liam Clarke

The population of Northern Ireland is higher than at any point in history.

New results from the 2011 census returns have shown that there are 1.81 million people in Northern Ireland — an increase of 125,600 people (7%) in the last decade.

Robert Beatty, the head of census at the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, believes our numbers will pass the 2m mark within 30 years.

He said: “We will be drawing up detailed projections in the next few months.”

The boom in population is driven largely by migration and higher life expectancy. It has allowed us to repair the demographic ravages of the 19th century potato famine and the flight of young people from the province during the Troubles years.

Around two million people died or emigrated from Ireland when the potato crop failed in the late 1840s. In 1841 the population of the area that is now Northern Ireland was 1.6 million, compared to more than 1.81 million last year.

Our 7% population increase over the past decade is matched by England and Wales.

This means that our block grant from Westminster, based on per capita public spending elsewhere, will not be affected.

“There was a period in the middle of the last decade when we had the fastest growing population but the figures for England and Wales show that they are now much the same,” Mr Beatty said.

Our population growth is dwarfed by the Republic’s 17.5% increase over the nine years between 2002 and 2011.

Mr Beatty said that the birth and mortality rates were now similar on either side of the border, “so the difference in population increase between the two regions is largely driven by migration”.

Emigration here has also been significant. Further figures from the census will be released over the next year. They will include precise breakdowns of religious faith and ethnic origin. However, Mr Beatty believes it is likely that 36,000 more people made their homes in Northern Ireland than left to live outside the province.

“Some of them will be local people returning after 10 years or more outside Northern Ireland, some will be from further afield,” he said.

“The figure may also include people who have moved here from Britain or the republic.”

Sammy Wilson, the Finance Minister whose department funds the census, described it as “the single largest statistical exercise conducted by Government.”

He added that information from the census “will inform a whole range of central government functions and allocation of resources, and knowing how many people live in Northern Ireland allows us to work out the types of services that we need to develop in the future”.

The age profile of the population will be of particular interest. The high number of people entering retirement and living into their 80s will put a heavy strain on public resources.

The number of people over 85, the most expensive group in the population in health terms, has doubled in the last 20 years and is likely to double again by 2031.

At the other end, the number of children has fallen by 18,700 or 5%. This has led to falling school rolls and a planned programme of school closures.

The fall has come mainly among school age children — the number in the 0-3 preschool age group has actually risen by 9% reflecting increases in fertility.

If this continues it will have implications for the school estate. We will have to wait for more figures to see in what area educational resources are needed.

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