Right-wing Americans, particularly those on the Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party, point to falling European birth rates as a sign that European societies have given themselves completely over to the pursuit of pleasure, to the point that they are committing demographic suicide. They love to extrapolate birth-rates to demonstrate that, as one commentator put it, "in 200 years, French and German will be spoken exclusively in hell".!
As with all the best propaganda, there is a shred of truth in what they say. In theory, a society with a Total Period Fertility Rate (TPFR) below 2.1 children per woman (the 'replacement level') will shrink in size, unless immigration replaces the 'missing' children. Immigration is, of course, an unknown – some societies do not attract immigrants, and even those that do, cannot be certain what kind of immigrants they will attract. Some societies do actually shrink – modern-day Russia is a large and important example.
Immigration may save a society from disappearance, but it will change its appearance. If fewer children are born to the 'host' community, and the difference is made up by other people, then the society becomes less like the 'host' community – in certain cases, this can lead to a dramatic change over a relatively small period of time.
In Northern Ireland several generations ago Protestants were a clear majority. The religious breakdown of the elderly shows that they were in a majority at one time even in areas that are now considered 'green' – Cookstown District Council area now has a Catholic majority (57.6%), which rises to around 62% amongst the children, yet amongst its elderly residents Catholics form only a minority, falling to 39.1% amongst the over-90s. Down District, currently 62% Catholic, has an even lower proportion of Catholics amongst its over-90s: 37.4%. Dungannon, Fermanagh, Limavady, Magherafelt, and Moyle all show the same phenomenon. Other areas show either a Catholic majority that is getting larger, or a Catholic minority that is getting larger (http://www.nicensus2001.gov.uk/ - look for table s305_dc_level.xls).
This tipping of the balance has not come about through immigration, but by higher birth-rates amongst Catholics than amongst Protestants. Until 1992 both religious groups had birth-rates that were over the replacement level, but the Catholic rate was so great that their share of the population gradually increased.
Recently, though, birth-rates have tended to reduce, mirroring those of the rest of Europe. The latest Total Period Fertility Rate statistics for Northern Ireland show an overall figure of 1.95 births per woman – well below the replacement level of 2.1. It would appear therefore, that Northern Ireland is committing demographic suicide.
But this overall conclusion masks some important variations in the TPFR at local level. In the 2005 Annual Report of the Registrar General, two areas with solid Catholic majorities (Newry and Mourne, and Dungannon) have TPFRs over the replacement level, and the solidly Protestant areas of Larne, Carrickfergus, Coleraine and North Down have TPFRs significantly lower than the average (1.85 for the period 2003-2005). In fact, of the 11 Catholic-majority areas, 8 have a TPFR above the average. Of the 13 Protestant-majority areas only 6 have an above-average TPFR. In Belfast and Armagh neither religion has a majority. Of the 8 'least-Catholic' districts only one – Ballymena – has a TPFR over the average.
The table below summarises the situation at local level, with the districts shown in order of the 'Catholicity':
[table removed temporarily]
In some 'Protestant' areas with an above-average TPFR, it is clear from the increasing Catholic proportion of the younger children (ages 0-4), that this is largely due to a higher fertility rate amongst the Catholic minority – in Ballymena, Ballymoney, Craigavon, Antrim and Lisburn the proportion of children who are Catholic is greater than the proportion of the parents who are Catholic.
So is Northern Ireland committing demographic suicide, or is it just Protestant 'Ulster'?