The census results always have a certain classroom CSPE (civic, social and political education) feel to them: they arrive in increasingly granular detail over the months and years after the survey has been released, as fun, digestible chunks of information that are difficult, at first glance, to grasp the importance of. It’s certainly interesting and remarkable, for example, that the number of unpaid carers rose by 53 per cent since 2016, but what does it mean?
The top-line figure is clear at least: Ireland’s population has grown significantly, to more than 5 million, as has the population of every county. As the only country in Europe never to recover a pre-Famine population, in which the population continued dropping from the 1840s until the 1950s, to just below 3 million, the steady increase since then is an extremely welcome development. For all the talk of strain on resources, we remain a sparsely populated island that could happily sustain a considerably larger number of people than have lived here in the last century.
If it seems as if housing is the fulcrum around which all of Irish political life has turned for the past 30 years, it’s because it is
But resources are not entirely about square meterage, but about infrastructure: hospitals, schools, amenities and, above all, housing. If it seems as if housing is the fulcrum around which all of Irish political life has turned for the past 30 years, it’s because it is. It feels almost cliche to say that younger people (and many not so young people) face incredible struggles simply in finding a place to live, be they buyers or renters. And young people are something that Ireland has a large number of, by European standards especially. Our population is ageing, but remains comparatively young.
Grouping people by generations feels natural, but carries significant risks. The easy categories of “boomer” or “millennial” seem to reveal all, but hide incredibly significant divisions including class. They are also, it’s worth noting, American imports that hold limited transnational meaning. An American boomer was born into the best economy the world had ever seen, in a country that was the overwhelming economic hegemon.
There was no baby boom for the Irish boomer, and they were likely to emigrate from a barely functional State. Nevertheless, Irish people over 40 have had a significantly easier time buying a place to live and that division in home ownership, rather than any other life experience, has created significant political cleavages that seem destined to widen further. These effects are already being felt in other countries. In the United States, millennials are the first generation to become more rather than less radical as they age, driven by starkly lower levels of personal wealth and home ownership. The generational divide is even starker in the UK, where even in 2019 under-40s went for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour by landslide margins.
As home ownership declines here, every new person outside the system is a potential voter for an alternative government
Ireland has historically had some of the highest rates of home ownership in Europe, and lowest levels of renting. This has declined as our financialised housing system continues to push prices to new and more ludicrous heights. Fewer people own their own homes, more are pushed into the dysfunctional private rental system. The same mechanism that makes housing unaffordable makes asset owners ever richer, at least on paper. Those two groups, the outs and ins of property, are polarising into opposite electoral camps.
Homeowners tend to favour parties that deliver continued asset appreciation, and renters/prospective buyers favour those who promise some stability, or perhaps even depreciation, to rents and house prices. Margaret Thatcher was famous for her strategy of creating an unassailable voter base for the Conservative Party by allowing council tenants to buy their rented properties. As home ownership declines here, every new person outside the system is a potential voter for an alternative government.
Since the late 1950s, one economic model – and one economic model only – has held sway in Ireland, across governments and decades: that of foreign direct investment-driven growth, low corporate taxation and incredibly loose regulation on capital entering and exiting the State. This was achieved at the cost of decades of underinvestment in health, housing and social services, and exposing Ireland to the full raw force of international capital.
After the 2008 housing crash, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition that came to power in 2011 doubled down on the model, making it even easier for international funds to purchase and own huge property portfolios.
In the next election young people will almost certainly put their faith in a Sinn Féin-led coalition to deliver some desperate shock to the system
Census 2022 paints a picture of that model’s spectacular success, and profound failure. A population that has rebounded, an economy running red hot, record low unemployment, runaway rents, falling levels of home ownership and an increasingly unequal society with a threadbare public service. Swathes of housing stock lie in the hands of large corporate landlords. No political party outside the socialist left seems to have much interest in replacing or updating this model, but like in the late 1950s, the model appears to be creating the conditions for its own destruction.
Young Irish people seem destined for further political radicalisation, not because of their youth or lack of religiosity, but for the simple material fact of being failed by a State unwilling to inconvenience the domestic property-owning class and the powerful forces of international capital. In the next election they will almost certainly put their faith in a Sinn Féin-led coalition to deliver some desperate shock to the system. Whether that shock arrives is an open question.
Jack Sheehan is a writer and PhD researcher in history at Trinity College Dublin