July 22, 2006
Ireland is now two countries. The first country is recognisable. You know it. In fact, you were probably born there. It is relatively old, relatively prosperous and life moves at a reasonably easy pace. However, schools are closing down and there are few children around.
The few children that are around are cossetted types, trussed up in car seats and ferried to exclusive schools which are not within walking distance. Even if the schools were, their parents would not contemplate them strolling to school.
Although traffic is bad, public transport does exist and is fairly reliable. It is not that the place feels empty, but it feels well-worn, at ease with itself and sedate. Equity release is its buzz word. This Ireland is greying rapidly into healthy middle age.
The second country is brand new. It is teeming. It is bursting at the seams. It is also dusty. There is so much digging, noise, laying of foundations and construction that it suffers from a permanent haze. It is as if a man-made mistral, generated by hundreds of lads in high visiblity jackets, has afflicted the place. Here the schools are jammed.
In early evening, the green spaces are full of kids in Dublin, Meath and Kildare GAA jerseys playing soccer. The houses are new. The hot food counter at the local Spar is always busy. Local sports clubs are popping up all over the place and retail parks are being planned ahead of the next housing development.
There are Woodies DIY centres at the intersection of every main artery into and out of this second country and the demand for decking and barbecues appears insatiable. This second country is the new Ireland; this is Deckland.
The census figures published this week reveal this startling divide between the new and the old Ireland. In Deckland, the population is exploding. We are experiencing a second baby boom in the new suburbs. This will set the agenda for modern Ireland in the years to come.
In contrast, the old established areas are in danger of becoming geriatric in the years ahead. Worse still, the populations of both Cork and Limerick are actually falling.
Things are not much better in Waterford either. Cities that are losing people – at a time when the counties around them are overflowing – have got to do something fast because history shows that depopulated cities die.
If we take a bit of altitude from the census, we can see that the entire economic nexus of the country is shifting out to this new Irish baby belt. If we were to join most of the cabinet in a few weeks time and fly out west from Leinster House in helicopters, paid for by builders, to the Galway races, we could see this new Ireland emerging.
While the population of the country increased by 8 per cent in the past four years from 2002, Meath and Fingal have experienced population increases of more than 20 per cent. This is phenomenal.
Taken together with Kildare, these counties account for close to 30 per cent of the countryï¿½s entire population growth.
Similar demographic patterns are emerging in east Cork, Carlow and east Galway. All these places have experienced a local baby boom and a net inflow of immigrants.
The demographic change over the past four years has turned the country inside out and many of our old assumptions have to be rewritten. The fastest growing subset are now dulchies – Dubs who have moved out to areas they used to describe as culchie land.
For example, if you go to a sports shop in Navan this weekend, you will find that it stocks as many toddler Dubs jerseys as the traditional Royal County ones. But something else is happening. Places that were losing population for years are rebounding.
In his book Memoirs, the late, great John McGahern painted a picture of a Leitrim that suffered from emigration and population decline. Yet in the past four years it has experienced a renaissance.
Leitrim is the fastest growing county in Connacht. This followed more than a century and a half of continuous decline.
What are the implications of this demographic revolution? Quite apart from dropping whatever you are doing at the moment and investing in creches, the ramifications of this will be felt at every level in society.
Most significantly, we have to fast-track our infrastructure development. This is now a national emergency because on closer analysis, the census reveals a third major trend. As well as the growing baby belt and the greying suburbs, a third major trend is that our cities are dying.
The population is falling or about to fall in three of our five major cities. This is a huge issue and is a direct result of bad transport. Traditional Irish cities are in danger of getting cut off from their hinterland. This could be a disaster if not checked. It is a new development and we must wake up to it.
In the past, our politicians focused on the peripheral nature of the remote countryside. This was the starting point for much of our lobbying. Now the opposite is happening – rural areas are flourishing and our cities, apart from Dublin and Galway, are dying. And even Dublin and Galway are not keeping pace with the growth of surrounding counties.
The second ramification of the dying Irish city is that to repopulate, we have to build upwards. Planning restrictions on the height of new buildings are strangling our cities. If this is allowed to continue, whatever public transport infrastructure that is put in will be expensive and inefficient, because the population will be too widely spread.
Cities need to be put back on the political agenda and the only way of doing this with any real effect is to adopt the continental model of a strong, directly-elected mayor with real powers and finance. Much of the political response to the census this week has been about redrawing boundaries.
This is indeed valid but this is mere tinkering within our existing political system. The big, unwritten story of the census is that our cities – far from flourishing – are beginning to wilt and will ultimately die. This demands remedial and direct political action now.
The US of the 70s and 80s has shown us what happens to great cities when they are allowed to die. Crime and social dislocation become rampant. Last weeks census has given us an early warning sign.
While the country in general is strong and growing, with the baby belt expanding muscularly and older suburbs greying into healthy middle-age, our cities are weak and fragile.
Cities are the heartbeat of every small country; it is time to take strong corrective action. This starts with planning and ends where the buck must stop – with a directly elected, strong and independent mayor for each of our major cities.