The CSO has just issued its annual Population and Migration Estimates for 2021, and 5+ million is the headline figure. That’s the estimated population of the Republic of Ireland – the first time the population has been this high since 1851. It’s an important milestone.

There’s another important story in the estimates, though. This is what has happened to migration patterns in the past year. The 2020 estimates covered the period to the end of April 2020, just as Covid was beginning to make its presence felt. The 2021 estimates cover the period from May 2020 to April 2021, and give the first indication of how Covid has affected migration to and from Ireland.

The first important point to note is that immigration to Ireland has dropped by around 24%: from 85,400 in 2020 to 65,200 in 2021. The last time immigration levels were this low was in 2013. While there have been falls across all immigrant groups, there’s a particularly marked fall in immigrants with a nationality other than UK or EU. This figure was 30,400 in 2020: it has more than halved, to 14,100, in 2021. This is probably largely connected to student visa holders: with the move to online teaching, students were no longer required to move to Ireland.

The second important point to note is that the level of emigration from Ireland remained relatively stable: 54,000 in 2021, compared to 56,500 in 2020. However, the proportion of Irish nationals emigrating has dropped to 42.2% in 2021, the lowest in a number of years. In contrast, the proportion of emigrants with a nationality other than UK or EU has increased, from 12.6% in 2015 to 28.5% in 2021: this is likely to include students, workers, and their families.

There have also been changes in where emigrants are going. In 2021, 33% of all emigrants (18,200) went to the UK. In 2020, that proportion was 17.6%. In contrast, 12.6% of all emigrants went to Australia, Canada or the US in 2021, compared with 27% in 2020. There’s a long tradition of people moving from Ireland to the UK at times of crisis. Most recently, the numbers emigrating to the UK jumped from 7,600 in the year to April 2008, just before the period of austerity, to 20,000 just three years later, in the year to April 2011. Writing in 2008, geographer Bronwen Walter described:

“the ongoing need for Britain to provide a ‘safety-valve’ for vulnerable Irish people”

Bronwen Walter, 2008

This is evident in these Population and Migration Estimates, with Britain again becoming a significant destination for emigrants from Ireland.

The impact of the fall in immigration levels in particular, coupled with the increase in emigration of ‘Rest of World’ nationals (those with a nationality other than UK or EU), is beginning to be felt across Ireland. In the recent past, jobs in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and services were often taken by immigrants. These are sectors that are now reporting labour shortages (see Irish Times, Dáil Debates, Irish Examiner, and Farmers Journal).

As we emerge from Covid restrictions, it’s unclear what will happen to migration patterns in the near future, and what this will mean for Irish society. However, we do need to pay attention to what this CSO publication shows us: ongoing high levels of emigration, the continued significance of Britain as an emigrant destination (even with Brexit), and the important – if often hidden – role that migrants play in key sectors of the Irish economy and society.

Mary Gilmartin