Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Census shows how we've changed

Northern Ireland's new-found attractiveness as a place to live - after the sterile years of the Troubles - is reflected in the initial results from the 2011 census.

During the past decade 36,000 more people decided to make their home here than left through emigration. The net increase is due to a mixture of people returning home and an influx of immigrants mainly from eastern Europe. Given that a large number of young people will have left the province because of the downturn in the economy in recent years, this shows a significant number of people coming here to live.

While there is always huge interest in the sectarian headcount in Northern Ireland - the numbers of Catholics and Protestants will be revealed later - the value of the census is to allow government departments and agencies to plan services and facilities in the years ahead. For example, the number of those aged 85 and over has doubled in the last 20 years putting a huge strain on health and social services.

Similarly education officials will have to work out the puzzle of just what size of school estate to plan for. The number of children of school age has fallen by 5%, but the number of pre-school children has risen by 9%.

That points up the need to have a flexible school estate, ensuring that the number of places in the classroom are not cut to such a low level that they will not be able to meet future demand. School closures or mergers are very much on the agenda at the moment and Education Minister John O'Dowd now has new figures to feed into the mix and create a further headache for him.

Overall there are now more people living in Northern Ireland than at any time in the region's history, and the rate of population growth is broadly similar to that in England and Wales. At one time the province was the fastest growing part of the UK, but now families are getting smaller, another sign of the province's growing normality. Further census reports on the ethnic and religious mix of the population will also demonstrate how much society here has changed.

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