If we pursued a more open-minded policy with regards to immigrants, the diaspora and planning, Ireland could have a more stable long-term economy.
The Financial Times is running a very odd ad this week which demands a double take. It shows a contemplative Mikhail Gorbachev in the back of a taxi, driving past the Berlin Wall.
Almost 18 years after the wall fell, the strangest thing about this image is not the familiar ex-communist boss beside the most evocative monument to the bankruptcy of his ideology. This would be predictable enough, and Gorbachev had the good sense to recognise the economic cul-de-sac of the command economy before most others.
The weirdest thing about the photograph is that, on the seat beside him, is a Louis Vuitton bag. Gorbachev is the star of an ad for Louis Vuitton – the ostentatious bag-maker. So here we have the last Soviet communist leader promoting probably the most conspicuous example of everything that his ideology railled against.
This volte face is yet another example of how the new world of globalisation demands that we rethink some of our assumptions about what is, and what is not, possible. Twenty years ago, had you suggested that the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party might front ads for the most frivolous, fashion-driven consumer goods, you would have been laughed at.
Now, with these enormous changes in mind, consider the proposition that over the next few decades, Ireland – a country which has experienced a demographic catastrophe – might follow an explicit policy to increase its population dramatically, reversing the trend of the past century and a half.
Many people might ridicule the idea that Ireland can absorb an increase in its population over and above what we are experiencing at the moment. Others would go so far as to say that we can’t even cope with what we have, so how could we cope with multiples of our present numbers?
Just park your scepticism for a moment because, in the years ahead, the most radical economic tool we will have at our disposal will be demographic policy. As this column has argued before, people are the key to the future and absorbing people who are both culturally compatible and economically progressive would seem to be a logical step for our country. This would give us the advantage that we need. Ireland could be a host for international brain power.
Thus, as a result of both bringing back some of the diaspora (which is the right thing to do for historical reasons) and having an active immigration policy that aims (like most immigration policies do) at strengthening deficiencies in the labour market, Ireland could stay ahead of the pack. But could we do it?
The answer is yes. All you have to do is drive around the country to see how empty the place is. Ireland is among the least densely populated countries in Europe. In 1841, Ireland had a population of 8.2 million. England had a population of just over 14 million.
Today, the island of Ireland has a total population of 5.9 million, while England has a population of 50million.This implies that, since 1841, the English population has expanded three and a half times.
If Ireland had the same population trajectory since the famine as England had, we would have a population close to 29 million. Can you imagine what the country would look like?
If you think the English example is not applicable, let’s examine some of the more populated European countries. For example, Ireland has a population density of 60 people per square kilometre. The Netherlands has a density of 393 per square kilometre. If we had a similar population density as the Netherlands, our population would be 33.4 million.
Even if we were to have the same population density as Germany, at 233 per kilometre, there would be close to 20 million people on the island and 14 million in the Republic. A density close to the EU average would imply an Irish population at least double what it is today.
Before we discuss how an increase in our population might be engineered, just consider how empty the country is today. Despite all the talk about congestion, Ireland is vacant. If you catch the train from Dublin to Cork, for example, you will be struck by just how spacious the country is – all there is on either side of the track are miles of largely empty fields.
This is an amazing resource and, if looked on from a demographic perspective, it is an enormous waste of habitable land. These large open spaces also reveal why the recent property boom was so unnecessary. There is no shortage of land here.
In fact, there is an enormous surplus, and this structural surplus explains why only restrictive planning can prevent the price of land from falling precipitously, now that the land scam has been exposed and prices are headed downwards. (Ach sin sceal eile.)
Instead of focusing on the next year or two, let’s look to the future. An active demographic policy would start by giving the diaspora passports and continue by having positive discrimination to those immigrants with the skills we need (which is the type of policy followed by mature democratic societies like Canada and Australia).
This would greatly enhance our labour force and could galvanise government thinking around a national plan. Many of the pieces are in place already. For example, in the course of the next few years, the motorway expansion programme, if fulfilled, will dramatically alter the geography of Ireland.
If we fix the transport system, then the country will open itself up and the gravitational pull of Dublin will begin to wane. This will allow the rest of the country to breathe. But this will not happen by itself. It needs to be directed from the top and it should be accompanied by a commensurate demographic policy.
Many ‘empty’ countries have had targets for national population before, with great success. The most obvious are the US, Canada and Australia. (Nor do we have a native population that would need to be harassed into reservations to make this happen.)
The Israelis have followed an ethnic immigration policy, where every Jewish person in the world is given ‘‘the right to return’’. This has been at the expense of the Palestinians, but as we have no ‘‘Palestinians’’, an Irish right to return would threaten no one. If managed properly, the more people we have in the country, the more dynamic it will be, with a greater sense of a national project.
A realistic demographic target for Ireland over the decades ahead would be a population of 10 million by 2030. This would involve building new cities in the empty midlands, greatly expanding the Galway, Limerick, Cork corridor and linking the entire project with a system of railways and motorways, so that no two urban centres are more than two hours from each other.
Years ago, I studied in Bruges and was amazed at how many locals commuted to Antwerp by train. The reason was simple: it was relatively hassle-free. The Belgians built a train system around their major cities, creating a country where everyone was on the move, but no one seemed stuck anywhere in particular.
We could take these examples and organise and plan accordingly. This would give us something to aim for and would be the blueprint around which we could frame all our planning. It would also send a signal to foreign investors that we are serious about increasing the economic capacity of the country and its labour force.
In addition, from a cultural/historical point of view, we could close the demographic circle that began with the famine. The population of this country fell because it was allowed to. The future population growth could be guaranteed, because it would be cultivated.
So instead of having economic growth as the objective and allowing planning to catch up, we could have a demographic target as the objective, plan accordingly and allow economic growth to catch up.
There is plenty of room in the land for an active immigration policy – all we have to do is make space in our minds to contemplate it. As the Gorbachev episode with Louis Vuitton reveals, things do and can change quickly. Once we have done this, organisation will be the key. But there is no divine law that says the Irish can’t do planning; it is just that we have not bothered to focus on it.
The Dutch have an expression that ‘‘if the Irish lived in Holland, they’d drown, and if the Dutch lived in Ireland, they’d feed the world’’.
Let’s aim to repopulate the country, reverse the demographic deficit of the famine and prove those Dutch wrong.