There are few better ways to see what the country is going to look like in a generation than from the sideline of an underage football, GAA or rugby match. Children’s sports, alive and well across all codes in this country, give a wonderful snapshot of the different ethnicities living in this large suburban nation.
My son’s football team, on its various travels, has come across outfits made up of well-drilled Lithuanians. They have played against a squad of all-African boys, save for the solitary white goalie – a boy from a Serbian family. And they have togged out against a predominantly Arab club where the back four were all called Mohammed.
Around this time of year, just before the summer holidays, many clubs organise mini-World Cups or mini-All-Irelands, bringing together hundreds of kids from all over place. The blend of languages, colours and codes on the sidelines is truly astonishing.
In this maelstrom of social change, it is reassuring that the one constant – across several cultures – is the touchline warrior. You might recognise the Demented Dads and Motivational Mums who roar instructions, half-encouraging, half-threatening at their little Ronaldos. Armed with their own personal VARs (video-assisted referees), they film every move, tackle and – pity the referees – every decision on their smartphones, only too ready to give their educated, unbiased interpretations of the rules.
The football experience also provides a map of who is settling where in the country. The settling patterns of immigrants in Ireland is unusual, reflecting the intersection of property prices, the planning process and suburban development.
There are three main zones. The first is the inner cities, particularly in Dublin. This is where the immigrant population is highest. This mirrors patterns in other countries. However, when we head out from the multicultural epicentre, we start to see settlement patterns changing, and these patterns are unusual internationally.
As we leave Dublin city centre, and move out to the older suburbs, those built within the M50, immigrant families disappear almost completely. These estates built between the 1950s and 1970s are overwhelmingly Irish and have changed comparatively little in a generation.
Once we cross the M50, the immigrant population begins to rise again. In formerly provincial towns, such as Portlaoise and Navan, the immigrant population is significant and rising.
This type of settlement pattern is not evident in Germany, France or Italy. In most European countries, immigrants settle where the jobs are plentiful. In Ireland, immigrants settle where they can afford a roof over their heads. Our immigrants are commuters.
This is not only a function of property prices but also the fact that within the M50, local residents have been extraordinarily successful in objecting to any new developments, often with the support of a local TD. This means that within the M50 – where development should be taking place – there are wide open prairies where wild horses roam.
The success of the serial objectors has pushed residential development further out on the commuter radial routes.
This creates another development that, in the European immigration experience, is exceptional: immigrants are settling in towns that up until now have been depressed and economically down at heel. So it may come as a surprise that the most diverse municipality in Ireland is Longford, where only 64 per cent of the residents are “white Irish”, as the Central Statistics Office designates it. Twenty-seven per cent are white but not Irish. Just over 10 per cent are “black” or “Asian”.
Belturbet in Co Cavan is not a place that might historically suggest multiculturalism, yet 25 per cent of its residents describe themselves as not Irish.
This pattern has profound implications for the country in the years ahead, particularly when we take into account the population projections announced by the CSO on Thursday.
According to the CSO, Ireland’s population could grow to 6.7 million over the next 35 years. The CSO has mapped several projections for how the State’s population will grow between now and 2051, based on varying inward migration levels and fertility rates.
The population is expected to reach five million by 2021 across most of the projections, up from 4.74 million currently. This is significant growth and begs the question: where are people going to live? Where are they going to go to school, or to creche, and what rail provision or road network have we planned to accommodate them?
If fertility rates do not decrease, and inward migration levels reach 30,000 people a year, the population will grow to 6.7 million by 2051.
My own sense is that these numbers underestimate potential population growth because they underestimate inwards migration. There’s a very good chance that immigration will be much higher.
Immigration is driven by push and pull factors. The major push factors are population growth, economic stagnation and war in the countries from which people want to flee. Given that more children will be born this year in Nigeria than in the whole of Europe, you don’t have to be too imaginative to see that surging populations will cause surges in migration.
In addition, the pull factors to Ireland are significant. Our economy is rapidly becoming a cog in the global supply chain. Therefore, globalised multinationals will increase their presence here, irrespective of any changes to the tax rates.
The implication of this is that Ireland will behave and feel more like a well-off state in the US such as Washington or Massachusetts than a European country such as Croatia or Austria.
This is the future. If you want to see what it looks like, head out this week to a schoolboys’ soccer mini-World Cup or a GAA club mini-All Ireland, and absorb the sights, sounds and accents of our new Ireland.