John FitzGerald: The North is losing a third of young graduates – this needs to stop

Difference between migration pattern North and South related to how both economies perform

A century after independence, partition, and the creation of two separate economies on this island, North and South continue to remain intimately linked to Britain through sharing a common labour market.

Ireland actually never left the shared labour market, as huge numbers of Irish workers continued to find employment in Britain after independence and, with the exception of the war years, no work permits have been required. Ironically, the North pursued a more independent line, preventing people from Britain or the rest of the island from working there without a work permit. This system only ended with EU membership, which required free movement of labour into Northern Ireland. Free movement of labour across these islands continues even after Brexit.

Migration flows have been driven by differences in work opportunities, as signalled by differences in wage rates and in unemployment levels between Britain and Ireland, North and South. Over the first five decades after independence, emigration from the Republic amounted to a cumulative 40 per cent of our population, whereas for the North the corresponding share of population to emigrate was 20 per cent. The superior performance of the Northern Ireland economy during and immediately after the second World War explains their lower emigration rate over the 1920 to 1970 period.

This pattern changed significantly over the most recent half century, and particularly so in the past 30 years. The Republic has seen net immigration amounting to 12 per cent of its population, with more than 60,000 people moving from the UK here in the past 20 years, reversing the previous west to east migration flow. In contrast, there has been continuing net emigration from the North, with 8 per cent of its population having left.


While in recent years a major factor in the difference between migration patterns North and South, has been the variance in economic performance between the two economies on this island, the malaise in Northern Ireland runs deeper than economics. It seems to reflect a preference by many young people born in the North to make a life in Britain, not necessarily because it is more financially attractive, but rather because they want to live in a society where their identity is not defined by the religious community into which they were born.

In addition, Brexit has had a significant destabilising effect on politics and society. While the Šefcovic proposals [vice-president of the European Commission Maroš Šefcovic] can largely address the practical concerns around movement of goods and medicines, the rhetoric around the Northern Ireland protocol and around a united Ireland has created increasing unease within and between communities. More than 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, there remains the major challenge to build bridges across communities and create the kind of society in which most young people born in Northern Ireland will choose to live.

The pattern of emigration from the North in recent decades has meant a disproportionate number of those with a good education have left, with few coming back. Over the past decade, about 30 per cent of Northern students have gone to Britain for their third-level studies, particularly those from a Protestant background, and only a third of these return to the North after graduation. In recent years, this outflow of educated young people to Britain has accelerated, while the proportion of returned emigrants per head is half that of the Republic.

Social benefits

The limited number of student places in the North is a factor in the exodus of undergraduates to Britain. Because those who study in Northern Ireland are more likely to remain after they graduate, there would be economic and social benefits to providing more local student places.

For any society, losing a third of your graduates is a major economic and social loss. It helps explain why the North has the lowest level of education of any UK region. This, in turn, has been a major factor in that economy’s poor economic performance. However, the wider effects on society may be even more important, even though less easy to quantify.

The Republic also experienced a haemorrhage of graduates in the late 1980s, with a concern that this would be a permanent loss of talent. However, as the economy picked up in the 1990s, a high proportion returned, bringing new skills acquired in their years working abroad. This helped raise the overall capacity and performance of the Irish economy. More broadly, those who returned also played a part in the State becoming a more open and outward-looking society.

Our society has also been enhanced by inward migration from across the world, a diversity that is reflected in virtually every town and village, as well as in our cities.