'Population explosion' needed if Northern Ireland is to grow as a region

Northern Ireland needs more people to make their lives here if it is to continue to grow as a region and attract the kind of high quality foreign investment which lifts prosperity for the whole population

IF you've had cause recently to avail of the services of the NHS, you will know how reliant hospitals are on the emigrant population.

Across the UK, it is estimated that 12.15 per cent of the NHS staff are non-nationals, and it's safe to assume that at least the same proportion delivers care, under huge pressure, to our population. Equally, our hospitality sector is dependent on staff from outside Northern Ireland.

On a recent night out in a well known Belfast restaurant, the excellent service we received came from a collection of staff, none of whom were born here, and that is such a refreshing experience, the kind of phenomenon that makes you think Belfast is evolving into a modern, vibrant European city.

Hospitality Ulster, the representative body for the pub and hotel sector, say one in five of the workforce is accounted for by foreign workers. As our economy grows we know that tourism and the hospitality sector is on the rise, and by 2024 it is estimated that we will need in Northern Ireland an additional 30,000 staff including for example 2,000 chefs. Those are startling figures and they also illustrate just how reliant we are on an inflow of foreign workers.

Last week the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency (NISRA) reported that the population of the region is expected to reach just short of two million people over the next 25 years. That will be through natural population growth, though it is stalling, and net migration.

Between the natural ebb and flow of migration and emigration, Northern Ireland has experienced an average net international inflow of 2,200 people per year and lost an average of 100 people to the rest of the UK in the same period. It is projected that Northern Ireland will gain 38,700 people between mid-2018 and mid-2043 through migration. The NISRA conclusion though is that as natural population growth gets slower, we are reliant on emigration to maintain our population growth.

As a population we are also getting older, with the number of 15- and 16-year-olds projected to decrease, while the number of people aged 65 and over will jump from 308,200 to 481,400 - an increase of 56.2 per cent.

Northern Ireland needs more people to make their lives here. In fact we could do with a population explosion if we are to continue to grow as a region and attract the kind of high quality foreign investment which lifts prosperity for the whole population.

In the Republic there has been net immigration for the last five years in a row, and in the 12 months to April past, 88,600 people moved to Ireland while 54,900 left.

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) records the level of non-Irish nationals living in the state at 12.7 per cent of the total population (622,000). The total population in the state is just short of five million.

Ireland, north and south, is one of the few countries in the world to suffer population decrease as a whole over the last 170 years, a period in which the world's population increased more than sixfold. It is startling to reflect on the devastating impact on the Irish population of the famine; in 1841, the population had reached 8.2 million before, in the second half of the 19th century, six million people left the country. Emigration became the norm and many counties, especially in the west of the country lost more than 50 per cent of their people through starvation and emigration.

Why do all these numbers matter? The Brexit cloud which hangs over us all is a threat to our population trends and to the number of non-nationals who are currently free to choose to live and work here.

The UK government's dog-whistle approach to immigration is designed purely to appeal to the basest of the Brexit extremists who believe that a utopian 1950s style England is right around the corner if only they could get rid of those pesky foreigners. The Immigration White paper published by the government is a threat to the economy of Northern Ireland more than any other region.

There is a real threat to our economy that firms will relocate to the Republic of Ireland in order to avoid the pitfalls of an restrictive post-Brexit immigration system. That's not the view of an ardent Remainer but the conclusion of our own Department for the Economy.

It has submitted evidence to the UK Home Office highlighting the “disproportionate impact that restricting the flow of migrant labour from the European Economic Area would have on the Northern Ireland economy.” The evidence concludes that migration was key to our economic recovery and calls on the government to recognise our unique status as a land neighbour to the EU. There is that ‘special status' phrase again.

Respected business figure David Gavaghan reacted to the Department of Economy report by saying it is vital that immigration policy ultimately be devolved so we can come up with our own solution to what is a genuine threat.

And yes, it would be great if we had local ministers in place making the political arguments on top of the departmental response, even using their bargaining power in any post election negotiations around the formation of a government. We need more people - and we need our politicians back.

:: Brendan Mulgrew ( is managing partner at MW Advocate ( Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Claire Aiken

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