The figures for 2009 for the north, published by NISRA on 18 March show that the birth rate (the number of babies per 1000 of the population) was 13.9 – and this represented a slight decrease from 2008. In the south, by contrast, the birth rate was a whopping 17.3 – an increase from the previous year, and by far the highest rate in the EU.
In fact, the birth rate in the south is usually higher than the north, and they tend to move in roughly the same direction:
In 2009, though, they moved in different directions, and a considerable gap has thereby opened up.
Reasons for this divergence are not obvious. The increasing birth rate in the south, as in the north, can be partly ascribed to the influx of young migrants since the opening up of both labour markets to A8 workers in 2004. This has had the effect of lowering the average age in the population, but more importantly, of adding a large group of people of prime child-bearing age to the population. So far, so obvious – the number of births increases, and the birthrate increases with it. But why did this change in 2009? Babies born in 2009 would probably represent decisions taken nine months earlier – thus usually in 2008, when times were not so bad (compared with now). Were expectations in the north in 2008 worse than in the south?
This scenario is not borne out by the evidence of the labour market – unemployment rates in the north did not deteriorate compared with the south in 2008-9. So why did people continue to have babies in the south, but hold back in the north? These questions cannot be easily answered, and probably require some additional research to be done.
Another question that the figures pose is 'why is the southern birth rate generally higher than the northern birth rate?'
Here, perhaps the answer is easier. The population of the south is younger – only 11% was over 65 (in 2006), against 14% in the north (in 2008). In addition, in the north 23.6% of the population was aged between 45 and 64, whereas in the south this cohort represented only 21.9% of the population. This means that almost 38% of the north's population was over the normal reproductive age, while in the south less than 33% was. Clearly, with more people at reproductive ages in the south there would be more births:
Certainly the higher proportion of the south's population in the fertile 25-44 age group explains a large part of its higher birth rate – but even if births in 2009 in both jurisdictions are expressed as a rate per thousand of the population size in that age group the south appears to be more fertile:
- South – 1,345,873 people aged 25-44– 77,156 births* = 57.3 per thousand
- North – 492,721 people aged 25-44 – 24,900 births = 50.5 per thousand
[*2009 Q3 figures multiplied by 4]A third and slightly more complicated question can also be posed: does the lower northern birth rate imply a lower fertility in the Catholic community in the north than amongst their cousins in the south? Figures for the Total Period Fertility Rate (the hypothetical number of children the 'average woman' will have in her lifetime) for the south for 2009 are not yet available, but in 2008 the TPFR was 2.1 (a slight increase from 2007's 2.0).
In 2009 the TPFR in majority-Catholic areas of Northern Ireland tended also to cluster around 2.1, while in majority-Protestant areas the TPFR tended to be lower (areas not included tend to be fairly closely balanced at child-bearing age):
So, to answer the third question, the evidence seems to imply that (cultural) Catholic fertility is similar north and south, and thus that the lower birth rate in the north may be due to a lower fertility amongst (cultural) Protestants.
Nothing yet answers the first and most puzzling question – why the birth rate in 2009 headed in different directions in the two jurisdictions? Perhaps an answer will become obvious over time, or perhaps 2009 was simply an unexplainable anomaly. This blog will continue to watch these statistics to see if an explanation presents itself.