December 14, 2003

Lights are on, but is there anyone in the government's offices?

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There are 31 sets of traffic lights between my house and the Grand Canal – a distance of about seven miles. Is this a record? Well, it must be close.


Last Thursday, at 5.30am on a wet morning, red lights held me up at 27 of the 31 of these lights. There were no other cars on the road, yet no one had thought to synchronise the system. Apart from the Chinese workers, there isn’t a sinner about at that hour, but there is no sensory device to keep the traffic flowing.This would be a bit too logical for Ireland.

Obviously, despite all the talk of free-flow, nobody is interested in traffic management. Otherwise, the Dublin traffic management system would be sensitive to traffic volumes in the same way as the lights in the capital of Ungobungoland operate.

But even in Ungobungoland, the idea of “joined up” government exists where one decision is not seen in isolation, but in the context of a greater scheme of things. But not here, no way, joined up thinking was not taught with joined up writing in babies, so it does not happen.

When economics gets a bit serious and the sums get hard, the first thing that teachers talk about is the difference between partial analysis and general equilibrium analysis.

Partial analysis means looking at things in isolation. For example, if we build a school, more teachers will be employed.General equilibrium analysis tells us what else will happen. It measures how many other things occur following any one event.

Economists and mathematicians have spent years trying to build the perfect general equilibrium model for the economy using the most sophisticated mathematical equations, models and the like.

It is all very hard stuff, but at least general equilibrium thinking is trying to assess some overriding picture of how the place works in an interdependent, sensitive and joined up way.

Unfortunately, the entire exercise is futile.The brainy economists would be better off playing poker and necking pints all day because we have an administration that is unable to govern in a joined-up way.

Therefore, a bit like our traffic lights, while the lights “work” individually (as in, they go red, amber and green at different times), the system does not function efficiently.

Nowhere is our lack of integrated thinking more evident than in our approach to im m ig ration, de mographics, planning and housing. This week, the central statistic office published two fascinating breakdowns of last year’s census, which give us the most up-to-date snapshot of who we are,wherewelive,whereweworkand what we earn.

The most significant finding is that the Irish population is now rising four times faster than any other country in Europe. There are now four million people living in the Republic.

The population increased by just over 60,000 this year. The rise is evenly split between immigration at 29,000 and a robust birth rate at 31,000.The birth rate is a reflection of the echo of the baby boom.

Ireland’s post war baby boom peaked in 1980 and we are now seeing the ripple effect of this as those baby boomers are moving into their mid 20s. Just to put this into context, the domestic, non-immigrant population is rising twice as fast now as it was only a few years ago. In 1995, births exceeded deaths by 15,000 – today the figure is over twice that.

Yet, many are still leaving the country as well. The idea that emigration

has stopped is nonsense. The Ryanair generation is still alive and kicking and 20,700 of us chose to leave Ireland this year. Over 40 per cent of our emigrants are not going to the EU or the US. This suggests that many are travelling for over a year, rather than going abroad to get well-paid work.

While this is the lowest emigration figure since 1987, the big story is the rate of net immigration. Immigration peaked at 66,900 last year and fell marginally to 50,500 this year, but is still huge in a European context. Immigrants are now counting for half of the increase in the Irish population.

So who are these people? Where do they come from? Where do they work? The immigrant population is evenly split three ways.Thirty per cent are returning Irish, 30 per cent are from the EU and the US and 30 per cent come from the rest of the world. This gives the economy and the society a very nice mix of skills, attitudes and capabilities.

Despite some adverse publicity, only 7 per cent of the new immigrants are from central Africa (but this figure is disproportionately high).

In contrast to Irish emigrants, where 60 per cent are under 24, the immigrants are older – 44 per cent of all immigrants are aged between 25 and 44.This age profile reinforces the view that many are arriving with skills paid for by others that we can only benefit from.

The prevalent idea that immigrants are spongers is also refuted by the data. Of the 190,000 immigrants over 15 years old that have arrived here since 2000, 150,000 or 80 per cent are working, paying taxes and contributing to the economy. This compares with 58 per cent of us Paddies. Person for person, the immigrants are subsidising us rather than the other way around!

According to the census, 21 per cent of all immigrants are in the professional, technical and health occupation category, as opposed to 16.5 per cent of the population. A further 13 per cent of foreigners are involved in the services sector as opposed to 9.6 per cent of the rest of us. All told, the figures reveal a society that is changing at such a rapid pace that it has hardly time to pause for breath. Ireland is younger, more sallow, better educated, more vibrant and more in need of joined-up thinking than ever before.

It is clearly evident that the demand for childcare, planning, waste disposal, housing and transport infrastructure is going to increase dramatically over the coming years. Yet, where is the investment in childcare places?

The demand for housing likewise. Do we want a Dublin that sprawls from the border to Wexford or should we now be building upwards? What about public transport?

More roads are needed, but with this rate of population expansion they will be clogged by 2010, so what about trains? Where are the new inter-city railway lines? How do we think our waste is going to disappear?

The census is an accurate and dependable early warning system. It is a brilliant predictive indicator for the society in 2020.The lights are flashing amber. It is our choice whether we want them to go green or red.

Joined-up government is the key, and thus far, this has been absent. Time will tell whether the Ireland of the future resembles a free-flowing, integrated highway system or the ‘Rock Road on a wet Thursday morning.   


  1. Luke

    David,

    Very interesting article I’ve just one question with
    regards to figure mentioned in the following “This
    compares with 58 per cent of us Paddies” does this refer
    to the returning Irish immigrants who left and then came
    back during the boom time, or the general Irish working
    population? Could you explain this figure further please.

    Great article and unlike the previous post I understood
    the point of the article! Who got hung up about your
    metaphor regarding the state of the government.

    Luke

  2. David Mc Williams

    hi luke, the 58% figure refers to the existing irish
    workforce, david

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