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Double the Population of Ireland – Issue #1

Double the Population of Ireland

Ireland is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe, and the least densely populated country in Western Europe.  Of the 27 member countries of the EU, only five have less population density than Ireland (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Sweden), and all are in the icy chill of Northern Europe.  Our neighbor, the United Kingdom, has a population density of 265 people per square kilometer, nearly four times higher than our population of 65 people per square kilometer.

The leading healthy economic powers of Europe (Germany, France, Netherlands and the UK) have population densities of up to six times higher per square kilometer than Ireland.

In fact, 170 years ago the population of Ireland was nearly twice the size it is now.  Only the Leinster province has grown in population in the last 150 years; Munster and Connaght are half the size or less of their previous populations.

So why have we shrunk, and importantly, should we continue to look to shrink or stay at our small size now that the economic boom time of the Celtic Tiger seems to be over?

Historically, the population of Ireland shrank because of dire economic and political failure, most notably due to the Famine, but also due to the continuous failures of the economic and cultural isolationism of the government from its inception until the 1960s.

Diarmaid Ferriter captures it well in his essay “Ireland in the Twentieth Century”:

  • “There also emerged a critical questioning of the persistence of underdevelopment, as the 1950s was the decade in which emigration damaged the national psyche and the rural hinterland and placed under strain much of the rhetoric concerning the ideal rural life and the merits of self-sufficiency. In the post-war period, until 1981,over 500,000 people emigrated from the Irish Republic. In 1958 alone almost 60,000 emigrated at a time when the population of the Republic was under 4 million people.”
  • “The Programmes for Economic Expansion, begun in 1958, finally put to [rest] any lingering attachment to the virtues of economic and cultural isolationism… The prosperity that accrued in the 1960s and the decline in unemployment and development of a robust export trade indicated the merits of a more open economy.”

Population decline has been associated with poor economic development policies.  And the population growth that Ireland saw in the period in the 1970s and in the “Celtic Tiger” period has been associated with growth and a vibrant, booming economy.  In fact, due to the improving economy, the current population has increased 50% from it’s all-time low in the 1950s to now; with 20% of the increase coming in the period from 1996 until now.

Clearly, then, population growth isn’t a bad thing for the economy then, as population growth has coincided with Ireland’s greatest periods of prosperity, but isn’t it rather a factor of the economy rather than the other way around?

It is true that a bad economy will drive emigration.  College graduates coming out of university in the last several years, unless they were trained with job skills in the IT sector, found themselves unemployed or underemployed.  They found no better option than to leave their homeland and find work in Australia or other destinations overseas, tearing apart families and taking many of our brightest minds and hardest working talent and putting them into a place where their talent can be used.

What happens as our population shrinks?  Fewer people are then tasked with servicing the huge debt our prior governments have saddled us with.  If tomorrow we had double the number of people in Ireland, the debt per person would be half of what it is today.  And that debt then becomes manageable rather than unmanageable.

What are the other benefits of an increased population?

1. Lower cost of living

  • right now, people from Ireland often travel to Northern Ireland to shop for goods because the goods are cheaper in Northern Ireland than in Ireland.  Why?  Because the UK has a larger population and this larger population drives a much greater volume of goods and services from a wide array of suppliers.  Competition from these suppliers means that the products are available more cheaply in a big market than they are in a small market.
  • cheaper per capita costs for building infrastructure
  • why is it so difficult to provide high-speed broadband to Ireland?  One reason is that the cost for infrastructure is significant, and the population density is too low to provide this economically.  This applies as much to internet infrastructure as it does to highways and rail systems.  It is much easier to justify putting in a subway system where the population of a city is 6 million than where it is 1 million, because the trains will be full and running more frequently to provide sufficient capacity.

Low populations mean that many services are completely uneconomical, whether that be rail, bus, or, as we’ve seen recently, increasingly large numbers of airports in Ireland being shuttered.

Where services are provided, lower populations mean that the services will have greater than expected costs.  High-speed internet could be ten times as fast but provided for lesser cost with a sufficiently large population.  Not just double the quality of infrastructure, at reduced costs, but an order of magnitude better.

2. A large enough internal market to justify investment and competition

Ireland, at only 4.3 million population, is not big enough to justify the expense and time investment to set up a business to serve the Irish. And thus, we don’t create sufficient competition, so we fail to improve value to the consumer.  At twice the population, we will attract from abroad (and grow from within) more leading companies to come and serve our market, improving the cost of goods and quality of life of our citizens.  Think of it this way: there is a certain amount of overhead in every business, the G&A function of the Managing Director and the Financial Controller, etc.  With twice the business volume, that overhead is cut in half, and products can be sold for a cheaper amount without affecting the viability of the business.

3. Reducing the effects of the high fixed costs in our government

  • We have a large fixed cost in running our government.  Part of this may be due to unnecessary bloat which hasn’t been cut out (quangos and the like), and this should certainly be pursued if so; but part of it is also due to the functions that a government performs that are going to be fixed expenses regardless of the number of people living in the country.
  • For example, the Dáil Éireann has 166 members, which represent the 4.3 million citizens in the country.  Each TD represents, then, about 26,000 people; each TD costs the country about €100k in salary plus whatever set-aside should be made for the generous pension benefits that are given to them; in the US House of Representatives, by contrast, each member represents over 700,000 people, or more than 25 times as many people, at a cost of about €130k in salary, with pension benefits that are less than half of what they are in Ireland.
  • Regardless of whether we think are TDs or Ministers or leading civil servants are paid too much or too little, the main reason the cost of government is so high is that they are representing so few people each.  Add to this the costs of maintaining all the branches of government, from the High Court to the Food Safety Authority and the Irish Medicine Board, and divide by the small divisor of the number of people in Ireland, and we can see why our costs are so high, irrespective of the salaries and pensions that are paid to our representatives and our leadership.

All this is not to say we shouldn’t slash excessive government spending where the willpower exists to do so.  It may in fact be unavoidable, anyway.  But regardless, it wouldn’t be enough to solve the basic problem of underpopulation.

We have to realize that there is a point where the viability of our economy dips below relevance, where the population is too small to be able to offer products at a competitive cost, and where the excessive overhead of a heavy government sector with salary and benefit costs that are in fact higher than the private sector weigh the economy into a desperate strait.  One of the reasons Ireland has been popularly called the “Rip-off Republic” is because our people pay too much for goods that should be made available to our citizens cheaper.  Is 4.3 million too small of a population?  Certainly, with the high fixed costs we have in running our government and with apparent failure of competition to develop for better cost of goods, it appears so.

What would it take to double the population of Ireland?

  • We can grow our own. But societal trends suggest that this won’t happen.
  • We can claim back some of the 70 to 100 million Irish that we’ve given the world in the past 150 years.  The United States has a population of over 40 million Irish, and there are about as many Irish in Massachusetts (1.5 million) as there are in Dublin.  And, of course, there are more Irish in the UK than there are in Ireland.
  • We can allow some people to emigrate to Ireland.

To double our population in the next 20 years, we’d need to grow at about 3.6% in population per annum, or about 150,000 new people per year.

The good news is that we are already growing at about 1% per year.  The bad news is that it would take about 72 years for our population to double at this rate. Given the 2010 statistic from NIRSA that says that 300,000 houses are empty in Ireland, and there are 2.8 persons per Irish household, we have a surplus of 840,000 population that would need to be brought into the country, just to fill our ghost estates alone… and at a 1% growth rate, it would take about 18 years to do this before we could absorb this.  Forget about housing prices recovering with an 18 year housing supply.

At a 3.6% growth rate, it would still take 5 years to fill our ghost estates, but that’s a lot quicker than 18 years.

So how do we grow 2.6% above the current growth rate?  We import people.

How many people would it take to grow at 3.6% per annum?  About 150,000 per year.  We are currently growing by about 45,000 per year intrinsically.  That means we’d need about 105,000 additional people given the existing internal growth rate of 1%.

Which people are best to import?  Should we go for workers with low skill and low wages to do jobs that the Irish aren’t willing to take on themselves?  Well, to some extent, that’s OK, but we’ve been doing that for years and, with our EU membership, we’re getting a natural flow of people from EU nations already that are happy to take our lower wage jobs.  In addition, these jobs which don’t require much training are jobs that we should be able to fill most readily with our existing workforce, many of which are unemployed.

No, the best workers to try to import are the ones that create more jobs in our economy, the ones that work in manufacturing industries, like IT, pharmaceuticals and the like, rather than in the services industry.  We can try to create such workers, as well, and retrain and repurpose such workers, but in most cases it simply isn’t possible to retrain people for highly skilled jobs in less than the 6-8 years that it took to create these people in their college preparation and in the years of industry experience it takes to become a passable IT worker.

You can no easier create a highly competent Java programmer than you can create a medical doctor or a lawyer.  And not everyone has the innate talent to be an engineer, either, just as some people aren’t natural piano players, for example.

But, as described elsewhere, manufacturing jobs generate from 5-7 jobs for each job created. These are jobs that are created by suppliers and in the local economy, from the butcher and the builder to the retailer. So, while it may seem counterintuitive, importing a worker for a job that will help drive our knowledge economy actually creates many times as many jobs as the single job that is filled.

It is then, not good enough just to grow the population, but to grow the population with a strong economy underneath it, we need the right workforce that we’ll help us create jobs and a vibrant economy while we’re growing.  We cover that topic in point #2, allowing English speaking tech workers into Ireland.

  • #1 written by Concerned Citizen  4 years ago

    Your views are very narrow minded and flawed.

    Doubling Ireland’s population will result in more environmental damage and destruction to this country.

    Not only will it have a negative impact on tourism and agriculture due to large areas of land required to house/school these additional 4million people, the infrastructure in Ireland is decades behind alot of Europe.
    We missed our opportunity to build cheap national infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, public transport, water, power plants and instead built roads and estates to nowhere.
    Now with fuel prices staying at the high altitude of $120 a dollar all these fuel hungry projects would cost the Irish Tax Payer alot more than it would have 10-20 years ago.

    We as a country do not have a desire to grow at such an exponential rate and I would argue that your reasons for such growth are based on vested interests!

  • #2 written by John Wall  4 years ago

    “Concerned Citizen”,

    Can I take you up on a few points:
    1. We’ve already built much of the infrastructure, housing & office stock lying idle
    2. On Tourism – think of all the extra reasons for families of the “new Irish” to come here to visit & holiday – how does this hurt?
    3. Agriculture – think of the much enhanced internal market for Irish producers – lower transport costs for getting their goods to the consumer means better prices for them & their families
    4. Who says we don’t have a desire to grow? I’m Irish, want a full life here for myself & family & I support this initiative. We’ve a great history of welcome in Ireland

    We’ve nothing to be afraid of – let’s do this

  • #3 written by Johner10  4 years ago

    Concerned citizen
    My concern is your lack of concern for your fellow and future citizens.
    We do need to grow and develop and doubling our population only gets us back to pre-famine times. While technology is the panacea promoted by this group it is simply identified because there is a gap in the market in this area, just as there was for housing 10 years ago. We are only at the start of a technological revolution with opportunities and benefits which have not yet been imagined and the technological and physical infrastructure co cater for the demand needs to be delivered. What is required is a responsive goal oriented planning process to protect the natural assets and to deliver beautiful livable communities for tomorrow. Don’t think of development as “bad”, ever been to Paris, Vienna, Prague, Rome, or Florence?

  • #4 written by Pat  4 years ago

    According to the CSO (Central Statistics Office) figures:

    The population of Ireland in 2006 was 4.239,848.
    The number unemployed in 2006 was 97,900.

    The population of Ireland in 2011 was 4,588,252.
    The number unemployed in 2011 was 304,500.

    So while the population increased by 248,405, unemployment increased by 206,600. When you consider that the government say approx 40,000 emigrated per year since 2008 due to lack of work, the actual unemployment figures would be higher.

    So, no at this point in time, Ireland does not need a population increase! Until the economy improves enough to put at least 300,000 current residents back to work, until there are enough hospital beds to cater for the current population – then we can consider increasing our population.

    This is not racist or nationalistic or anything else of that ilk, it is just the economic and social reality.

  • #5 written by Andrew Leonard  4 years ago

    I strongly believe that countries should create 20-30 year plans for their economy & public services.

    The plan is created by experts and bodies representing professions in the relevant fields:

    E.g. Teachers/lecturers for education, doctors and surgeons for health

    No matter which political party comes to power, that plan stays the same. The job of the political party would be to ensure that sufficient money is in place to fund the plan, make new laws, control tax collection etc.

    This would mean that businesses, organisations and the public know exactly what the plan for the future is, uncertainty about what will happen at the next election would be removed.

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