Saturday 22 October 2016

Ticking the boxes: what the census says about us

The forms are being delivered to every house in the land and how we answer the questions will have a major impact on the shape and direction of the country over the next five years.

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

On form: Conor Buggy and husband David Vaughan are ready to tick the 'In a registered same-sex civil partnership' box for the first time. Photo: Arthur Carron.
On form: Conor Buggy and husband David Vaughan are ready to tick the 'In a registered same-sex civil partnership' box for the first time. Photo: Arthur Carron.

As Census 2016 began dropping on doorsteps across the country this week, many are sure to see filling out the 24-page form on April 24 as just another household chore.

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In Clonee in Dublin however, Conor Buggy and his husband Dave Vaughan can't wait to answer question five on the document.

With a seventh option now on the marital status section of the green form, they're just one of the couples here looking forward to ticking the box next to 'In a registered same-sex civil partnership' for the first time ever.

Poring over the census, which arrived last Sunday night, UCD lecturer Conor - who's been civil partnered since 2011 and married since January - said: "It's great because we worked really hard during the [marriage] referendum campaign for it.

"Civil partnership came through on April 5, 2011 and the [last] census was a week later. We weren't civilly partnered at that stage - that was a few months later - so we would have been down as a cohabiting couple.

"My brothers and sisters are all married but my partnership, even though everybody felt it was at exactly the same level, legally we were essentially second class citizens," he added. "Now both me and Dave can say that we're exactly the same as our siblings' and parents' marriages."

Taking place on the exact 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, and 195 years after the enumeration books first began, census 2016 looks set to be Ireland's most historic yet.

Contrary to its literal Latin translation "those counted by head", and often public perception, Central Statistics Office (CSO) spokesperson Tony Downes explains how it's far more than just a national headcount.

"It's probably the only national survey that captures everybody in the country on a particular night, and so it's a very important tool for planning public services," says Downes.

"It shows how the country is changing from the point of view of education, health, transport [and] the sort of needs that we have and will have over the next while in those areas.

"It's a vital tool when you think of planning the likes of schools and hospitals and transport links, all of the things that we all need and rely on from day to day."

As a "no change census", householders across the land will again have to honestly answer 35 questions ranging from how they're feeling to how they get to school or work - or face a fine.

Mr Downes continued: "Essentially [it's] the same as it was five years ago. Ordinarily, there would have been a public consultation in advance so the public can have their say on the census and the questions it should or shouldn't be asking. But that didn't happen this time for a number of reasons, largely because the resources just weren't there to do so."

He added: "In Ireland, the first census was in 1821 and we've had censuses on a fairly regular basis since then. Initially, it was every 10 years. Now it's every five years with one or two interruptions for the likes of the foot and mouth disease [outbreak in 2001]."

But just how accurately does the census gauge the pulse of the nation?

In 2011, 84pc of the Irish population identified themselves as Roman Catholic. Yet four years later, 62pc voted in favour of same-sex marriage, defying the Church's position on last May's referendum and forcing the most recent change to question five on the form.

Long since lapsed, IT worker Robert Dooley from Dublin plans to tick the 'no religion' box for the fourth time next month - and recently set up online campaign #timetotickno to encourage others to rethink how they answer question 12 too.

Speaking to Review, he revealed: "The number of people that follow our campaign has doubled in the past week since the 1916 commemorations. The line from the Proclamation [of the Irish Republic]: 'The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens' is striking a chord and there are clearly some people who are ready to no longer identify as Catholic.

"Having no religion could be the last taboo in this country. We've received lovely messages from older people who told us that ticking 'no religion' in census 2016 is a public statement they have long wanted to make. Many have also taken to using our logo as their [Facebook] profile picture."

Arguing that some non-practising Catholics may be selecting the first of six options on the census "by default", Mr Dooley added: "The CSO state that 'People should respond to this question according to how they feel now about their religious beliefs or lack thereof'. The important word here is 'now'.

"This campaign does not wish or aim to convert people [from] Catholicism, but the conversion appears to have already taken place. People who do have faith should be respected, but faith has no place in forming legislation or the provision of State services."

While some may be losing their religion, others are rediscovering their native tongue, according to the census, after the number of people who said they could speak Irish jumped by 7pc to 1.77m last time round.

Encouraging those who "have an ability in Irish" to also complete the form in the language next month, Conradh na Gaeilge General Secretary Julian de Spáinn claimed it is "essential" that question 14 remains on the census.

"First and foremost it shows the level of interest in the language every time the census is published. When people come up with this argument that doesn't make any sense that the language is dead, it shows them that the language isn't dead - that it's very much alive," he says. "If people have Irish, they should say that they have Irish. The challenge for us is to make sure that they get the opportunity to use it."

Although it's not an urban myth that some jot their religion down as 'Klingon' or indeed their religion as 'Jedi', CSO spokesperson Downes called on citizens to 'use the Force' while filling out the form in three weeks' time - and check out if they're unsure of anything.

"Obviously, there are certain areas on the census form where people are free to put in those answers, but generally the experience has been that the Irish public are very supportive of the census and take it quite seriously because they appreciate the value of it."

Set to inform "everything from Dáil constituencies to the provision of schools", Brendan Halpin, head of the Department of Sociology at University of Limerick, agrees that census 2016 is key to "mapping the population" a century after the Rising.

As digital-data collection grows, however, the senior lecturer predicts that leafing through pages and ticking boxes could soon become a thing of the past.

"Over the next few decades, the pure census is going to become outmoded slowly and it's going to be replaced by other forms of data that will get the same sort of information, but will do it much more frequently," he says.

"For instance, we have postcodes now and these postcodes are going to be attached in one way or another to information about residence and so on.

"It's something that changes very, very slowly because it's been running so long and it provides the same information again and again in a way that's very important for long-term comparison. But I think in 25 years the census is going to look very, very different."

In the meantime, Conor and Dave are poised with a blue pen to once more help to make history.

"I don't think there's too many in the country that have actually managed to get married since November, so I'm sure the numbers will be low when then results come out from the CSO," says Conor. "But it's still a great feeling just to be able to put that down."


Census 2016 takes place on the night of Sunday, April 24, with the forms due to be collected by an enumerator by Monday, May 23. But how will this historic snapshot  of the nation on the centenary of  the 1916 Easter Rising differ from five years ago?


Up more than 8pc since 2006, there were 4,588,252 living in Ireland at the time of the last census in 2011, with women outnumbering men slightly. Of that figure, 17pc were born outside Ireland, while Polish people overtook British people as the largest non-national group living here.


Around 1.77m people told how they could speak some Irish last time round. But just 1.8pc of the population aged over three said they speak it on a daily basis outside of school. Meanwhile, over half a million people living in Ireland said they speak a foreign language such as Polish or French at home.


Although the number people who said they had 'no religion' surged by 45pc in 2011, most notably in the 25-29 age group, the number of people identifying themselves as Roman Catholic was also up from 3.68m in 2006 to 3.86m five years ago. Church of Ireland was the next biggest religion, followed by Islam.


Divorce in Ireland soared by 150pc from 35,059 to 87,770 between the 2002 census, which was delayed by a year due to foot and mouth disease, and the last census. Meanwhile, more women than men were either separated or divorced, with 65,361 separated women compared with 50,833 separated men, and 49,685 divorced women compared with 38,085 divorced men.


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