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New baby boom means we've got to get our act together

MY children were born in Belfast. At the first pre-natal class, I was the only dad in the maternity ward in deepest east Belfast not in a Rangers tracksuit. Apart from that, the whole process was quite normal, apart from the "born-again" midwife whose obsession with "saved" people seemed a bit inappropriate when our daughter was only a matter of minutes old.

Amazingly, our daughter was the only child born in the Dundonald hospital that night. This was, according to the nurses and midwives, highly unusual.

The absence of newborns in East Belfast that night may give those nationalists who believe that they will "outbreed" the unionists some comfort. It also reveals quite how significant is the operational achievement of Holles Street in Dublin. Every year 10,000 babies are born in Holles Street, that's 28 babies per day. This is extraordinary when you think that some of the hospital's facilities date back to the mid-1700s.

I am writing this piece in a cafe just opposite Holles Street and the traffic of new mothers, nervous fathers, proud grannies and confused siblings is endless. This is the make-up of our lives and it shows you that even when the economy is stumbling, life goes on and it does so vibrantly. We still fall in love. We still have children and we still worry about their first day in school and agonise over why they don't seem to be doing a jot of work when their exams are next week.

With the cycle of life in mind, it's wonderful news that at last a new maternity hospital is being built in St Vincent's, little over a mile away from where I am writing.

A figure of €150m has been earmarked for the project, with the aim of starting construction in 2016 and opening the doors to a new generation in 2018.

The question that the last census raises is what that new generation will look like.

As if to prove that a faltering economy doesn't stop the great world from revolving, Ireland is, despite the ruined local economy, experiencing a massive baby boom. Last year there were more babies born than any year since 1980 – the year after the Pope visited Ireland, when Irish people responded to his message of love.

One of the fascinating aspects of the new baby boom is that they are actually the Pope's children's children. Each generation is an echo of the one that went before. We are having children later now than our parents, but each baby boom will tend to replicate itself a generation later. So it would be logical to put this baby boom down to this natural process. But on closer examination, when we look at who is having children in Ireland, we can see that this isn't the case.

If you look at the table, which is taken from the yearly ESRI Perinatal Reports for 2004-2011 and the CSO Vital Statistics report, you can see that the number of immigrants having kids is rapidly rising. In 2004, the first year that we had information on the nationality of mothers, 18pc of the children born in Ireland were born to immigrants.

Last year, immigrants accounted for 23.5pc of all births. If we take the data and extrapolate the trend out, we can see that by 2018, 30pc of the babies born in Ireland will be to non-Irish mothers. In contrast, Irish mothers, who accounted for 81.9pc in 2004 are likely to drop to 69pc by 2018.

Two demographic factors could be going on in the numbers. The first could explain why the proportion of Irish-born mothers is falling quite rapidly. The first explanation might be because Irish-born women are choosing not to have children in much greater numbers than would be normally expected. The second explanation could be that there is such high emigration of women in their late 20s and early 30s – the median age for starting a family. This suggests that the Irish-born mothers are simply not here. They are in Australia, the UK or elsewhere.

On the other hand, immigrant mothers are having more kids. This is the normal pattern with immigration. When people arrive from a foreign country, particularly a poorer foreign country, they tend to have larger families. If they are from more traditional countries, this will be the case. Within one generation, immigrant family sizes tend to conform to the norm of those in the new country, but initially they are outliers.

This is why immigration is normally a boost for a country because the immigrant population swells the local population immediately and then for at least one generation, immigrants have more children.

Economic growth is a function of the size of the labour force and the productivity of that labour force. Therefore when the labour force is rising there should be an inbuilt dynamism that pushes up the growth rate. This is assuming that the productivity of the labour force rises too.

It is clear why we need to get the economy going again and get it growing robustly. The labour force is growing and, as immigrants have more children, the immigrant proportion of the population will be rising most rapidly. In order to head off the type of social problems faced by many western European countries with large immigrant populations, such as was seen in Sweden last week, we have to get our economic act together. This doesn't just mean growth, but education, town planning and housing strategies.

Naturally, politicians react to the concerns of their electorate, but electorates are already grown up by then. Real economic planning doesn't start at the ballot box but in the maternity ward which is why what happens today in Holles Street is of such importance to all of us.

Irish Independent