NISRA has recently published a set of excellent reports dealing with the complex issue of migration into and out of Northern Ireland, including a statistical report on Population and Migration Estimates Northern Ireland (2008), and a report on the Long-term International Migration Estimates for Northern Ireland (2007-8).
Taken together both reports provide a wealth of data on this 'missing' component in the evolution of the population. Of course, as NISRA say: "Measuring migration is challenging", and many questions remain unanswered, including (critically for this blog) the political opinions of the migrants.
Both incoming and outgoing migrants comprise two distinct groups – those from 'third countries' (i.e. outside of the UK or Ireland) and those migrating to or from Great Britain. The 'third country' migrants are largely from the new EU Member States, and increased dramatically after 2004. The reports deal with the period up to 2008, so the effects of the current recession are, as yet, unknown. Between mid-2007 and mid-2008 there was a net in-migration of 'third country' migrants of around 4,400, which comprised in-migration of 15,400 and out-migration of 11,000. It is easy to see how the recession might tip the balance in the opposite direction, but we will have to wait for any evidence to emerge.
Migration to and from Great Britain gave Northern Ireland a net gain of 1,400 during the 2007-2008 period, but it is hard to know who these people may be. They may be English, Scottish or Welsh people moving to live in Northern Ireland (and thereby helping to cement Northern Ireland into the UK, unionists might hope) or they could be returning Northern Irish people who have chosen to live in their own country rather than a Britain that they like less (and thus dissolving some bonds between NI and the UK, nationalists might hope). They might be former students who had left NI to study in Britain, and their return might herald the reversal of the Protestant 'brain drain' (as the UUP at least might hope), or they might be predominantly made up of lowly educated Catholics who had been pushed into emigration by the high Catholic unemployment of the 1980s, and who might return fired with determination that this time Northern Ireland will give them what they deserve. As NISRA say in the report on Long-term International Migration Estimates: "Over the last five years population migration has become a prominent feature within public and political debate in Northern Ireland. This debate has created significant interest in and demand for migration statistics."
Ultimately, of course, even the best statistics on migration patterns cannot tell us much about the political future of Northern Ireland. Will the children of Polish Catholics become Irish nationalists? Just because most of the earlier Italian immigrants did does not mean that the same thing will happen. But will they become unionists either? Will they vote at all? Will they stay? Are migrants from the south (of Ireland) automatically nationalists? Perhaps, but perhaps there are also Protestants fleeing the 'papist state' of unionist fantasy? Are migrants from England really 'English' or are they the children of proud Irish nationalists who, despite a Leeds or a London accent, will identify with the nationalist side of Northern Irish politics.
These questions and many, many more will not be answered by NISRA. Only the electoral process will answer them, and only in the longer term. If the vote of one or other political block rises by more than its 'natural increase' (taken to be the increase of its religious support base) then we could start to assume that the migrants are contributing to that growth. But even here there are other factors that will muddy the waters – turn-out rates, intra-block rivalries, and so on.
Both blocks will, no doubt, have noticed the migration figures for the post-2004 period and will be developing strategies to attract the migrants to their cause. So far neither block has appeared to have succeeded, and if the recession leads to the return of net emigration then perhaps the parties will forget about the incomers again – unionists will return to fretting about the disappearance of their young people, and nationalist will return to fretting about their birth rate. This would be a shame, as the need to appeal to newcomers would oblige both blocks to re-evaluate themselves and to take cognisance of their strengths and weaknesses, which could only help to improve the extremely poor quality of local political discourse.