Statistics from last year’s census in the Republic of Ireland have emphasised three main points: The country is getting older, the number of people that can speak Irish is declining, and the Catholic religion is losing its hold on the population.
The first two developments are not surprising. Ageing populations are affecting most developed and many developing countries as people put off having children either to accumulate wealth or as a matter of simple survival.
While it is regrettable that Irish is less spoken (despite the valiant attempts of the Government) it is hard to argue with the simple desire of people, especially among the young, to concentrate on a means of communication that will be understood across borders.
Irish, like Welsh, is unlikely to die out completely, but may well be relegated to a boutique tongue used principally among linguistic enthusiasts.
What is most interesting is that in a population of 4.7 million almost half a million told the census they had ‘no religion’. This is now the second largest group behind those who declared themselves Roman Catholic (3.7 million — a fall of 132,220 since the last census in 2011).
The number of non-Irish citizens, at half a million, was more or less steady, but dual Irish nationals showed a significant rise to 104,784, up 55,905.
This suggests that the Ireland of today is more cosmopolitan and outward looking than at any time in its history. It is also potentially richer. The crash of 2008 that hit the country harder than most others in Europe has now been largely surmounted and the economy is well on the way to a full recovery.
These are statistics that will not go unnoticed north of the border where the people are contemplating a United Kingdom embarking on a course that will take them out of the European Union — something which they voted solidly against in last June’s referendum.
The fear in Northern Ireland is that Brexit will mean the reinstatement of a hard border with the south, ending the free movement of the people that is one of the major features of EU membership.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said only that free movement would be a “desired” outcome of Brexit negotiations — a clear message that it could be bargained away during the talks.
Another outrageous suggestion, that the soft border be retained with a hard border between the island of Ireland and Great Britain, has disgusted even the staunchest Unionists.
There is, of course, another possibility – the full reunification of Ireland and continued EU membership for the north, something which would have to be accepted in referendums on both sides of the border.
When I worked in the north more than 40 years ago such talk would have been tantamount to treason in some communities, but today Ireland is no longer the “priest-ridden banana republic” of Ian Paisley in full flight.
In the end Paisley’s attitude softened; the Irish Republican Army put away its weapons. Faced with the unpalatable outcome of a Brexit they did not want, the people of the north might be ready to make their own historic choice.