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What is behind the sharp rise in Ireland’s population to almost 5.3m?

There are a lot of significant pluses and minuses in the latest population figures, which show a 97,600 rise in those normally resident in Ireland to 5.283 million. But two factors are key to driving the population higher – one is the arrival of Ukrainian refugees, while the other is the strong jobs market which continues to attract people to come and live here. On the flip side, there is also evidence of increasing emigration, perhaps linked to high accommodation costs and to a post-Covid departure of younger people to travel for a period.

The most significant factor driving the population higher is net migration of 77,600. This is the difference between the numbers coming to live here and those leaving the country. In the year to this April, these were two big numbers, with immigration of 141,600 and emigration of 64,000. This was the biggest immigration figure since 2007 – the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom.

The breakdown is interesting. The biggest single group is Ukrainians fleeing the war, who accounted for 42,000 of the total. Some 29,600 were returning Irish citizens – previous emigrants – while 26,100 were from other EU countries and 4,800 were UK citizens, some perhaps Brexit related. The remaining 39,000 came from other countries outside the EU.

So the inflow of Ukrainian refugees is a key part of the figures, but even substracting them from the total, net migration would have been significantly positive and the population would have increased. Notable in the figures is a strong inflow from other EU countries, presumably related to the strong jobs market, and also from other non-EU countries apart from Ukraine. There is no breakdown yet of these figures, but previous data has shown high numbers coming from countries such as Brazil to work here. The inflow from countries that joined the EU after 2004 – a key source of Celtic Tiger immigration – is now quite low and came to just 8,900 in the most recent year.


Highest immigration since Celtic Tiger pushes State population to almost 5.3m ]

The emigration figure was also relatively high at 64,000. Interestingly, looking just at Irish citizens, emigration of 30,500 was roughly equal to immigration of 29,600. As many are leaving as were coming home.

This level of returning immigration by Irish citizens is roughly in line with other years after the jobs market picked up around 2015. The emigration figure for Irish citizens, however, is the highest since 2016, though below the 40,000 to 45,000 annual level that lasted for a few years after the financial crash. Historical patterns suggest that economic factors are an important driver of emigration decisions. Is the price of accommodation now a factor for many?

The other thing driving the population higher is what is called the natural increase – the excess of births over deaths. This was 20,000 last year, down from a peak of almost 49,000 in 2010. Ireland’s population is relatively young by EU standards. But it is ageing too, and this has slowed the natural increase over recent years.

What does it all mean? With the natural increase falling, net migration is now the vital factor in Irish population trends. The availability of jobs will continue to prove an attraction, but how this balances out in people’s decisions with the high price of accommodation, and particularly rental costs, is hard to call. If this slows immigration – or hastens emigration – then economic growth will slow, too.

The second striking factor is the rapid growth in the population over a longer time period. The latest figures, compiled on a slightly different basis to the census, show that since the pre-Covid year of 2019, the population has grown by 6.5 per cent – as recently as 2000 it was below 3.8 million and has since grown by 40 per cent. The big deficits in the provision of infrastructure and some services – in housing, health, childcare, some areas of education and so on – reflect an inability to scale up provision to meet this population surge.