Demographic Reversal in These Islands


Over the past century two ratios which have been positive, the ratio of Irish in the UK and visa versa and the ratio of Protestants to Catholics in Northern Ireland, are likely to invert. Currently there are more Irish in the UK and more Protestants in Northern Ireland than visa versa.

Irish in the UK and the Flow of People in the Common Travel Area

If Brexit goes ahead  then UK citizens freedom of movement (FoM) will be limited to the UK and Ireland. Irish citizens will retain FoM both within the UK/IE block and also in the EU. This makes Irish citizenship more valuable and unsurprisingly there has been a surge in demand for Irish passports.

Over the past century the flow of people has largely been from Ireland to England, particularly in the aftermath of the 2nd World War when the UK had an insatiable demand for people to rebuild Britain and the Irish economy was weak. This trend reversed in the 1990s in the time of the Celtic Tiger, reversed again briefly in the UKs favour after the GFC, but the flow is now from the UK to IE and is close to record levels at around 20k per year, as illustrated in figure 1.

Fig. 1 UK IE migration 2006-2018


On average 375,900 people born in Ireland were living in the UK from January 2013 to December 2015, compared with 277,200 UK-born occupants in Ireland in 2016.


Other sources put the number of UK citizens living in Ireland at a bit higher (300k).

The UK population in Ireland is only about 75% of the Irish population in the UK, but given the UK population is about 14 times greater than Ireland, as a fraction of the population the number of UK born  citizens in Ireland is over ten times that of the Irish in the UK.

Nearly all the Irish in Britain live in England, so the English figures will give  a good picture of the total. Looking closely at UK census data it is clear that the Irish population in England is ageing, with the highest numbers being in the 60-70 cohort. This is to be expected as that was  major migration of young adults from Ireland to England in the ’40s and ’50s, who now form this cohort. There has also been a very slight increase in males in their 20s and both sexes in their 40s.

Fig 2. Irish in England 2001 and 2011 from census data


The aging profile of the Irish against the general UK population is more evident in Fig. 3 with the fraction of White Irish children and teenagers being much lower than White British while  the fraction of middle aged and elderly  higher.

Fig. 3 White Irish vs White British population structure England.


It seems very likely therefore through natural decline both via mortality and migration that the Irish population in England is likely to decline. Indeed on current trends there may well be more UK citizens living in Ireland than visa versa within the next few years.

Demographics in Northern Ireland

It is well known that there is a demographic shift in Northern Ireland between the number of Catholics and Protestants. The borders of Northern Ireland were drawn to give a 2/3 majority of Protestants but this majority is evaporating and within a few years the Catholic population will overtake the Protestant one.

Catholics tend to be Nationalist and Protestants Unionist, with a correlation of greater then 90%.

Two recent surveys indicate that the demographic shift is accelerating rather than slowing down.

The Labour force survey religion report (2017) contains a wealth of data including some very interesting post Census 2011 demographic data as well as historical comparisons. The report runs to 83 pages and goes into considerable detail. It can be accessed in full here. There is also a summary on BangorDub site. The survey indicates that whilst Protestants still outnumber Catholics, it is now by a tiny margin. In absolute numbers by only 7,000 in 2017. Fig. 4 shows the religion of working age adults. Catholics clearly outnumber Protestants but neither are a majority.

Fig. 4 Religion of Working Age adults in Northern Ireland.


For the over 60’s there is a clear Protestant majority as shown in Fig. 5.

Fig. 5 Religion of older people in Northern Ireland.


The other major survey is the Schools Census 2018 again available on the BangorDub site. This survey has more categories including “Other Christian” and “Non Christian.” It shows that there is no slowing of the demographic shift. Indeed among school age children Catholics easily outnumber Protestants and are now 51% of the NI population.

Fig. 6 School Age Children in Northern Ireland.



It seems very likely that there will be more UK citizens living in Ireland than visa versa within the next few years.The Irish are extremely relaxed about this, as like Scotland, immigration is seen as a major positive and not a negative like in England. (Though attitudes in England seem to be changing).

The ratio of Irish in the UK to vica versa may change if Brexit is a tremendous economic success and the Irish economy is very weak by comparison. This seems unlikely – indeed  the movement of people seems to be accelerating, with Dublin for example being the clear winner in attracting finance jobs from the City of London. There is a danger of overheating in the Irish economy with the growth rate being the highest in the EU for 5 years with that of  2018 running at 6.7%. The UK economy by comparison has been lacklustre, indeed the UK economy is set for worst year since the financial crisis, says the Bank of England.

It seems inevitable that there will be more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland within the next few years, probably by the 2021 census.  It will take a further decade however before there is a majority of voting age adults. The survival of Northern Ireland from the late 2020s onwards critically depends on how happy they are to remain the UK. Indeed a no deal Brexit may mean that Northern Ireland leaves the UK within a few years as many neutrals favour remaining in  the EU.


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    One of the key determinants of attitudes in NI is generally reported as being the NHS, given that a majority in the Republic have private health insurance (the govt funds healthcare for those unable to afford it).

    I read yesterday that national expenditure on health on a per capita basis in the Republic exceeds that in NI. It’s not possible to read much into this but consider the news stories. In NI the news is of underfunding, delays in service provision and people unable to afford healthcare, and about to lose their EHIC cards. In the Republic it’s of a colossal overrun on a children’s hospital, first and foremost, and on provision of new state-funded services, as well as of pressing demand for public healthcare services.

    It’s surely conceivable that we may see some people in NI opting, if they can afford it, for private health insurance with all-island hospital cover. If Brexit results in further strains on the NHS that could become a self-reinforcing trend as people opt out and its capacity declines as resources and top staff are lost to the growing private sector.

    A niece of mine qualified as a nurse 3 years ago, then worked for a couple of years in a large hospital in Dublin (Vincent’s) after which she aspired to work in the NHS for a while. Brexit put paid to that. She’s now finishing a year in Australia and will likely stay another. There is little chance of her wanting to go to the UK in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, some of the 14,400 Irish-born staff already working for the NHS must be considering their future after Brexit.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Its debatable which has the best healthcare system. In terms of rankings in the 2017 Lancet study Ireland was ahead. Waiting times for patients in the public sector can be very long.

      There are severe staff shortages in the NHS and EU nurses are leaving in large numbers .

      I can’t see things improving in the NHS particularly if Brexit goes ahead, the economy is likely to at best stagnate and at worse go into recession, on top of the already severe staffing shortages.

      I had a hernia operation in Vincent’s many years ago and had to wait about 6 months. I could have gone private as I was insured via VHI but, young Socialist as I was, I wanted to use the Medical card system. I qualified as a student. (Currently If you are 70 or over you qualify for a medical card, if your gross income is: not more than €500 a week if you are single; not more than €900 a week for a couple.)

      1. Samuel Johnson -

        I saw a statistic today for the nr of EU citizens who’d left NI since Brexit referendum; can’t recall the nr but it was immediately followed by “raising concerns about the viability of the NHS in NI”.

        As to which has the best (or worst!) that’s the point; it’s not clear, so the perceived benefit of staying in the UK for some may not be as convincing as proponents would have one believe.

  2. Sean Danaher -


    I saw a post also saying the in net terms migration from the UK to the EU has actually been slightly negative over the entire 45 year period. People forget the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet period, when people left the UK in droves.

    I understand the NHS in NI is in a bad way – a real shame they have had a terrible time over the past 50 years and healing is needed, particularly in mental health.

    England is so used to net immigration that the possibility of net emigration like Scotland and especially Ireland does not seem a possibility. Though I’m sure many people from the Indian Sub Continent and Africa will still find England attractive.

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