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Census 2022: Short-term challenges and long-term time bombs for Government

Needs of a growing population pose difficulties for current administration and future governments

Politicians in all parties have been fixated on the census results since the first headline figures were released a year ago. A rising population means more and/or bigger Dáil constituencies and more seats. TDs in all parties and none are anxiously awaiting the boundary revisions from the new Electoral Commission, currently being worked on and expected to be disclosed this summer.

The commission said on Tuesday it had received more than 550 submissions advocating boundary changes. TDs know that decisions made on boundary revisions – to increase the number of seats in a constituency from four to five maybe, or split it in two and move from one five-seater to two three-seaters – could have a make-or-break effect on their chances of election.

But while the census data revealed in today’s publication by the Central Statistics Office certainly shows there are electoral challenges and opportunities for politicians and parties, its real message is that the governments of this country over the coming decades – however they are constituted – face long-term time bombs unless they plan now for a growing population and a changing society.

The population growth evidenced in today’s numbers is the mark of a successful country, giving the lie again to the idea, sporadically popular in response to whatever the crisis of the day is, that Ireland is a “failed state”.


Though some will always travel for a variety of reasons, Irish people are staying here, some of those who have left are returning, and people from all over the world are coming to Ireland to avail of the opportunity it presents. The birth rate – though it has fallen sharply – is still healthy by European standards. The bare numbers show far more people are living here than at any time since the foundation of the State. And the diversity is striking; a fifth of residents were born elsewhere.

But a larger population needs a larger State, more expansive and efficient transport infrastructure, more schools, hospitals, nursing homes, crèches, community centres and greater capacity in its power, water and broadband facilities. It would be hard to make the case that the State has kept pace with the economic and demographic rebound since the financial crisis more than a decade ago; another decade of failing to keep pace would be disastrous.

The need to keep pace with the future expansion of the population and changes within it will face this Government, the next one, the one after that and the one after that. This is the essential task of Irish governments now. If they fail to do it, not only will the country stutter, but the political consequences for them of facing disappointed and frustrated voters will be unpleasant.

The signposts for what is needed are littered throughout the CSO numbers today. High population growth in the counties around Dublin, and an increase in people not just commuting to work, but leaving home earlier and earlier; those leaving before 6.30am are up 23 per cent; those leaving between 6.30 and 7am are up by 47 per cent. They need efficient public transport facilities to take them quickly to their workplaces. And, in some places, better roads: how long has the Galway ring road been delayed now?

A population that is ageing presents not just the obvious challenge of paying for its pensions. But its need for care is ballooning. The number of people who describe themselves as carers has increased by more than 50 per cent since the last census. There is already a significant undercapacity in hospitals and nursing homes, but how long has the children’s hospital taken? And how far over budget is it currently?

The need for housing is so obvious it hardly needs a mention, yet our systems for actually producing finished houses for people to live in seem to be getting more, not less, inefficient. Monday’s Irish Times reported that permission has been granted for 850 homes in Dundrum – a project first mooted more than a decade ago. Wait for the inevitable legal challenge. Legislation is apparently in preparation to speed up the planning process and limit the power of legal challenges to delay projects indefinitely. But its chances of getting on the statute books before this Government leaves office are no more than evens at best.

Business will build the retail parks and leisure centres and open the restaurants and the coffee shops to cater for the increased population and all those new consumers. But the areas where government action is required – providing finance and facility for public and private housing; expanding public services in healthcare, education, special needs and social care for an ageing population; transport services and infrastructure; and so on and so on – these are where politicians need to plan and to execute, and to do it quickly. Failure to do so wouldn’t turn Ireland into a failed state. But it would be a very, very frustrated one.