Ireland has to recognise that immigration is eventually going to clash with a slowing economy.

The population figures released this week reveal what many of us have known for some time – immigration is driving practically everything in our society.

This poses a serious challenge for us, which demands that we leave the relatively safe ground of economics and delve into the thorny, contentious but critical issue of culture. The question is what type of Ireland are we creating? Have we put much thought into it? And, if not, why not?

Our population has been rising now for some time. It has been apparent for at least five years to anyone who chose to open their eyes that the Pope’s children – those adults born in the 1970s population boom in Ireland – were settling down. They were filling up Ireland’s baby belt – mainly the counties around Dublin.

In the past two censuses, Kildare and Meath have been the fastest growing counties in the country. The new commuter estates – the ones now in negative equity – have become a nightly cacophony of wailing babies, ticking monitors and snarling, knackered parents.

But these places – like all suburbs – will become in time, the creative hub of a New Ireland, so they are well worth watching. This is the generation that is pitched into a new generation game with the new wild card in the Irish pack: immigrants.

The opening salvoes of this struggle are only now being heard but, if the economy keeps faltering, we could be entering a whole new era, as Irish workers and foreigners compete for fewer jobs. In fact, if economic history is anything to go by, this struggle is almost guaranteed.

If the new suburbs around Naas, Navan and Ballincollig give us a glimpse of the face of the new generation of indigenous Irish, the place to see the immigrants is Dublin Airport. This is their first port of call and, if you want to see the people behind the demographic figures, drive up theM1, grab a coffee at Starbucks in the terminal and open your eyes.

Around sunset is the best time. The airport changes from Irish to foreign and this side of modern Ireland reveals itself. In the arrivals hall, they are beginning to congregate. It looks like a scene from Gorky Park. Slavs of all sorts assemble to meet friends, and then disappear to the remotest parts of the country in a Vilnius registered Audi Quattro – the favoured car of Lithuanians. It was declared extinct here in 1996, only to reappear last year.

Some time in the evening, the arrivals section turns into a holding pen for east Europeans. You notice the crew cuts and fake Ducati biker jackets in various garish shades of orange and yellow, with misspelled motor oil ads emblazoned across the back.

They look like bouncers, big bullet heads on them, broad shoulders and Soviet special forces handshakes. Revealing that our culture is rubbing off on someone, they’ve a disturbing fondness for sovereign rings and Champion Sports.

The girls are mostly Slavic-pretty, long-limbed with high cheekbones, sallow skin and green eyes. They are the closest thing to supermodels that Mulhuddart has ever seen. Behold the nextTV3 weathergirl.

It’s amazing how the lads all look so downbeat and the girls could have stepped out of the pages of Italian Vogue. There is a disturbing amount of stonewashed denim and a few trademark Slovakian mullet and moustache combinations. Meet our future.

More phenomenal is the number of immigrants coming through the place. In 2005,143,000 Poles passed through here. Last year, that figure jumped to 580,000.

Passengers from the Baltics increased from 147,000 to 340,000 in 2006. Just consider the following statistic: in 2003, there were no direct air links between Poland and Ireland. Since then, just over one million passengers have travelled on one or more of the ten destinations served now between Dublin and various parts of Poland.

To get a handle on this, I camped out in the airport a few months ago and witnessed the following scene. The stewardess announces the incoming Brussels flight. The passengers queue up with the confidence of western Europeans which, counter-intuitively, means looking at your shoes, slightly guiltily.

One young woman is different. She constantly changes queues at the faintest sign of a hold-up. She is well dressed. Her papers are in order. Something is not quite right. Her palms are sweating. She looks like the Frenchwoman in the photo: everything matches.

The officer checks again. She’s wearing a long dress. He asks her to inch closer. ‘‘Please turn around, miss.’’ He asks her to stand against the life-size ruler. She’s the right height, but quite tall for a west African at five foot eight.

She looks around nervously and tries to regain her composure by flicking her hair and examining her impressively varnished nails. She plays with her earrings. She’s trying to flirt without making eye-contact.

Underneath her long skirt is a pair of customised nine-inch heels. The poor girl is practically crippled. She bursts into tears. She is Congolese,14 years old, in a strange country. She is a fraction of the size of the person she is supposed to be. She’s about five foot and she stands there sobbing, frightened and alone.

The woman, who, three minutes ago, was checking her nail varnish, is now a distraught child. The middle-aged gardai see their own daughters in front of them. Someone in the queue is drafted in to translate.

The airport is our Ellis Island. These people are our huddled masses. This is what the new world order means, and Ireland is on the front line.

Have we considered any of this? Have we even entertained that the mass movement of people is here to stay and Ireland is an attractive place to live? What does this economic force mean for our culture? This question is being asked in every country in Europe – constantly.

Denmark, for so long a country associated with tolerance and liberalism, has enacted some of the most restrictive immigration legislation in Europe, because the Danes have decided that their culture is not strong enough to withstand mass immigration – and they think their culture matters.

The Netherlands, for centuries the country that offered sanctuary for dissenters and outcasts from Spain’s Sephardic Jews to Protestant sects of every kind in the 17th and 18th century, has now also said ‘‘enough’’.

In 2002, Pim Fortuyn tapped into the popular mood when he claimed that Holland was full and that further immigration threatened the very tolerant society that welcomed immigrants in the first place. He was assassinated.

France has always insisted on allegiance to France over multiculturalism. In recent months, this has been challenged, and Nicolas Sarkozy has subsequently made it clear that he will not tolerate ‘‘further dilution’’ of French values.

Yet here, in the country that is receiving the highest net immigration of any country in Europe, the culture debate has not even started. Indeed, soft pieties, rather than hard politics, are dictating the agenda.

However, in 2008, as the housing market continues to tank, the hot debate will not be about economics – because it is clear which way that is going – but culture.

Culture matters, and this will become more evident as the irresistible force of immigration crashes against the immovable object of an inert economy. Something will have to give.