NISRA's recent Statistical Press Release on Births in Northern Ireland (2007) shows that the number of births in Northern Ireland bounced back up by 5% compared with 2006. In fact, since the low point reached in 2000, births have been increasing almost every year. At the current rate of increase, the total period fertility rate (TPFR) may well exceed the population replacement level (2,1) within two years. This is quite an unusual state of affairs, though it mirrors the situation in the UK and in the south, though in the latter case the bounce-back had already started in 1996.
The link between fertility rates and economic prosperity is a complicated one, with prosperity pushing fertility both down and up at the same time. As more women have access to contraception, and as more women work outside the home, their fertility has tended to drop – but conversely as families have become more affluent, and perhaps better able to afford reasonable housing, education and so on, they have started to have slightly more children.
The south has boomed under the Celtic tiger, and women have flooded into the workforce in massive numbers. At the same time housing and childcare are expensive, and so logically one would expect a drop in the average family size – but this has not happened. On the contrary, the birth rate has increased over the period of the Celtic tiger.
In the north, where the economy is not so buoyant, there has nonetheless been a significant increase in employment over the past ten years, and most of this has occurred in typically female occupations (business services (+36,000), retail trade (+31,000) and hotels & restaurants (+15,000)). So, yet again, while one might expect women to delay having children due to their jobs, the opposite seems to have happened.
Interesting though these factors are, there is a further element in the rebound of the birth rates. The NISRA Statistical Press Release provides a breakdown of the births by local government area (see Table 3), and thus allows a very rough proxy estimation to be made of the 'community' identity of the births. As noted in previous years, the birth rates in some majority Protestant areas are well below the average. The Northern Ireland average was 13,9 babies per 1,000 of the population in 2007, and the rates for some majority Protestant areas were:
North Down: 11,7
However, some other majority Protestant areas showed birth rates that were above the average:
These latter three are noteworthy for being relatively affordable dormitory areas for the greater Belfast area, and thus we would expect a fairly high rate of family formation. How much of this new family formation is Protestant, and how much is Catholic, is hard to tell. As this blog has pointed out before, some areas have a clearly higher proportion of Catholics amongst the very young than in the population as a whole, implying that the Catholic portion of their population is more fertile than the Protestant portion.
Adding to the difficulties in interpreting these figures are the low birth rates of some majority Catholic areas:
These latter areas are more rural and remote than the average, and this may have influenced the figures.
It remains true that the areas with the highest birth rates are ones with either a Catholic majority, or are close to parity:
Newry and Mourne: 15,9
This snapshot of 2007 supports the view that Catholic fertility remains higher than Protestant fertility, and thus that the current balance between the two communities is likely to keep shifting in favour of the Catholic community.
Table 4 of the Statistical Press Release is, however, the one that really raises questions, however. This shows the number of births per district over the past few years, and it shows that, despite the low birth rates, some Protestant areas showed a large increase in the number of births in 2007 compared with the previous years. For example Lisburn, with births in the range between about 1,400 and 1,500 for the past few years, shot up to 1,708 births in 2007. Ards, whose births have been in the narrow range 800 to 900, jumped to 940. Even North Down saw an increase in births in 2007.
This effect is not limited to Protestant areas. Curious little Moyle, with births in a very tight range of 183 to 198 since 2003, jumped to 225. What happened in 2006-2007 to make the women of Moyle more disposed to having children?
And more importantly, which women are having these children? In Lisburn for example, do the 200 'extra' babies come from Catholic Dunmurry, or from Protestant areas?
The current state of near-equality between the two communities in Northern Ireland makes these questions important. It is clear from a variety of sources (Census, Schools Census) that there is a Catholic majority amongst children, but this majority is not yet so great as to be irreversible. If Protestant birth rates were to rebound, and Catholic rates to decline, the achievement of a stable Catholic majority in Northern Ireland may be delayed by years, leading to a delay in the achievement of Irish re-unification.
So far there is no obvious reason for pessimism from nationalists – the TPFR in Catholic areas remains generally higher than the average, and that in many Protestant areas is still well below the average. But this is an area to watch, even though the significance of the figures can only be really tested at the time of the next Census in 2011.