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Northern Ireland population hits record high, early census figures reveal

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Dr David Marshall, director of census and population statistics, and Siobhan Carey, NISRA chief executive and registrar general, announce the first results from the 2021 census

Dr David Marshall, director of census and population statistics, and Siobhan Carey, NISRA chief executive and registrar general, announce the first results from the 2021 census

Northern Ireland's population has hit an all-time high (Picture: PA)

Northern Ireland's population has hit an all-time high (Picture: PA)

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Dr David Marshall, director of census and population statistics, and Siobhan Carey, NISRA chief executive and registrar general, announce the first results from the 2021 census

Census figures in Northern Ireland have revealed the highest-ever rate of population at over 1.9m.

The initial results of the 2021 census showed the population had increased by 90,000 (5%) in the past ten years, reaching a total of 1,903,100.

With the ‘baby boom’ generation of the 1950s and 1960s reaching retirement age, there was a massive increase in Northern Ireland’s elderly population.

Those aged 65 and over increased by 60,000 (25%) in the past ten years, accounting for 326,500 of the population.

In contrast, the declining birth rate saw children aged 0-14 decrease by 9% to a total of 365,200.

The remaining 64% of the population were aged between 15 and 64 (1,211,400).

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The number of households in Northern Ireland also hit a record high at 768,900.

The average household size in Northern Ireland is 2.44, which is less than half the average size of five in 1851.

By gender, the figures recorded a total of 967,000 females to 936,200 males.

Figures for categories including religion, national identity and sexual orientation are to be released this autumn.

Dr Ian Shuttleworth, a population geographer from Queen’s University Belfast, said the figures raised serious questions about how society would meet the needs of a growing elderly population.

On the record population size, he told the Belfast Telegraph: “It’s following a long trend. I think our population bottomed out in 1891. So there’s been a steady growth ever since.

“It wasn’t unexpected, but I’m not sure what the main cause of the growth is, whether it’s the birth rate or immigration. We’ll know more when we get the other results later this year.”

Asked when the population might peak, he said factors and birth rates would be key.

“The population is getting older, so a big thing is that the number of people over 65 has gone up by 25% in the past ten years.

“If you look at the Nisra [Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency] releases, it shows a dependant population who are too young or past retirement age.

“We had quite high dependency for young people in 1971, but now we’re getting increasing age dependency.

“So without migration and the birth rates remaining low, you’ll find the population will peak at some time and start to go down as the population ages.”

Dr Shuttleworth said an ageing population was a common trend across places such as Europe, North America and Japan.

“It’s even the same in China, where they’ve had the one-child policy. There’s been an increase in the rate of older people,” he said.

“So that will have implications in terms of looking after people, who will do the looking after, and implications for taxation. There’s a lot to think about.”

On the largest number of households ever, he said it contrasted sharply with the decreasing average size of households in Northern Ireland.

“I guess that’s because there are more people who are staying single longer. There are more people who are divorced or separated and more older people who are widows or widowers.”

Comparing the current household size of 2.44, to a level of five in 1850, he said: “In the past, rates of fertility and the number of children in the household were far higher. There were also comparatively fewer older people.

“That’s the opposite today. Changes like that will affect the household size.

“Our lowest population was in 1891 — 1.23m. It’s gone up steadily since.”

While fertility rates were high at the time, he said migration played a major part in the decreasing population figure.

“I suspect that what’s happening now is that the economy isn’t doing too bad compared to what it was historically, and the Troubles are over,” he said.

“In the past 30 years or so, Northern Ireland has also become a country of immigration, but we don’t know how big a factor that is yet.”

Looking ahead to the release of more figures in autumn, he said: “The religious figures will no doubt be of huge interest to the media, with the breakdown of Catholics and Protestants.

“But there’s actually so much more to think about. For example, there’s going to be a lot of information on housing, tenure and quality.

“There will be lots of information on the health quality of the population in 2021. It’s also going to be interesting to see what the population looked like in the middle of lockdown too.”

Speaking earlier, Nisra statistician Dr David Marshall agreed that, despite the growth, it was expected that Northern Ireland’s population would eventually peak.

In terms of passing the 2m mark, he predicted this could be as far away as the 2031 or 2041 census.

The decline in birth rates and rise in the elderly population, however, meant the population was unlikely to rise dramatically unless other factors such as migration increased significantly.

The census takes place every ten years, with participation being compulsory.

It remains a vital tool for helping to plan public services such as schools and the health service.


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