|Taoiseach Enda Kenny and a group of children at a census promotional event last year|
No one in power here seems to be answering fundamental questions like that. What's worse, no one who matters seems to be even thinking about questions like that.
Our social scientists and economists make predictions because that's what they are paid to do. But they have no power and their track record is uneven, to say the least.
The politicians have power and they make promises. But given their track record they have even less credibility.
They tell us continually that despite our present difficulties everything will be all right. Rather than seriously considering the implications of worrying developments in our society, they gloss over any concerns and tell us to work together, be confident and leave the future to them. Don't worry, be happy.
The politicians pretend to plan for the future, but it's really all short term.
They're too busy coping with the present to be worrying about the future. For them, the future is the next election.
So what does the real future hold for Ireland? Who has the big picture for 20 or 30 years from now? No one in authority has a clue where we're heading.
And this stuff is important because, for example, it will influence living standards here, it will influence retirement, it will influence whether you should be telling your kids to think about living somewhere else.
It's not just economics and the massive debt burden that is hanging around our necks, although that will play a huge part in our unknown future. It's also to do with our society in general, the kind of Ireland that is evolving, whether it is what we want, or whether it makes some people feel so alienated they may want to leave.
If it's a waste of time asking politicians about what really lies ahead of us, where do we look?
Well, probably the best advice is to start thinking for yourself. No one in authority has a clue, so you might as well try to work it out for yourself.
And if you're wondering where to start, one jumping off point is the National Census data which has just been published. It's the best indicator by far of what Ireland will be like in the future.
We have a census every five years here and the data from the most recent one, Census 2011 (taken in April last year), makes illuminating reading.
Believe me, you can learn a whole lot more about how Ireland is shaping up by studying the data and thinking about the implications than you can by listening to waffling speeches from Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny or, far worse, President Michael D. Higgins.
Looking at the data for Ireland as it is now is fascinating in itself. Comparing the data for 2011 with where we were in 2006 when the last census was taken is even more revealing because it shows the way our society is changing, and how quickly.
The information is easy to find on the Internet -- just Google Census 2011 Ireland. What comes up, as you will see, is the Preliminary Report of Census 2011, giving the main headlines -- more detailed data will be published in subsequent reports later this year.
It also tells you that this report is the first of two summaries of the results of Census 2011. This first one, This Is Ireland - Part 1, looks at overall population change by county; it also examines age, marriage, households and families as well as including first results on nationality, foreign languages, the Irish language, religion and housing.
The second summary report, This Is Ireland - Part 2, (coming in June), will look at other social and economic factors such as employment, occupations, education and skills, as well as health related topics.
The census is fascinating because it's the real deal. It's the raw data of people's lives, revealing a whole range of behavior and attitude, as well as the numbers on everything from whether we take the bus to work or drive, how many kids we have, what kind of home we live in, how much education we have, what kind of religion we are, and so on. In addition to that, of course, there are the headline numbers about population, age profile and so on.
Some of the information has to be treated with caution, mind you, because on some issues which are hard to measure specifically, there can be a tendency for people to indulge in a little wishful thinking. Or maybe in just fooling themselves.
Take, for example, one of the findings in the 2011 Census which revealed that 84% of us are Catholic. Yeah, right. If 84% of us were active Catholics you would need a church on every corner. Instead the church is dying, for reasons we all know about.
So why do so many of us still describe ourselves as Catholic on our census forms when the reality is so different? Is it because we want to hang on to the Ireland we knew when we were kids, even if it no longer exists?
Another example of this wishful thinking is the census finding that 1.77 million people are able to speak Irish (compared to 1.66 million people in 2006).
This means that nearly half the population is claiming to be able to "speak Irish!” The reality is that the vast majority of us have great difficulty in putting more than a few words of Irish together, and certainly could not hold a conversation in Irish.
We put our claim to fluency in Irish down on our census forms because, like our declaration of Catholicism, we like to think it's part of what we are. But it's aspirational, rather than real. We're fooling ourselves.
It's nonsense, but that did not stop the minister responsible for Irish saying that the census finding on Irish shows what great strides we are making in reviving the language.
Yeah, right. We're all devout church-going Catholics who are fluent in Irish.
This is amusing, but it should not be taken as evidence that the rest of the census data is unreliable. Most of the findings are to do with numbers and statistics. They are not as susceptible to wishful thinking or misplaced notions about what it means to be Irish.
The most important number, of course, is population, which has now reached 4.58 million, the highest it's been for well over a century.
Even more striking than the size of the population now is the fact that is has continued to grow strongly since the last census in 2006 when our economic boom was approaching its peak and immigrants were flooding in here.
The peak of the boom was in 2007. From then on there was a rapid downward spiral as the boom turned into a catastrophic bust, followed by the arrival of the IMF and the loss of our economic sovereignty.
Yet throughout this period -- in the five years between 2006 and 2011 covered by this latest census -- our population continued to grow. In fact it's up by close to 8%, which is way ahead of the population growth rate in other European countries.
Given that the Irish economy has been on the floor for most of this five year period, you would think that immigration would have stopped and even partly reversed. But not so.
This latest census shows that there are now 544,357 non-nationals living here, which is 12% of the population. This is an increase of 124,624, or almost 30%, on the census 2006 figure, which is remarkable when you think about it.
It shows that the predicted return of non-nationals who came here for work has not happened even though jobs have been very hard to find here over the past few years. In fact, although we have an unemployment rate of over 14%, non-nationals are still coming to live here in significant numbers, mainly from Eastern Europe.
But our strong population growth is not just a factor of immigration. A bigger factor is our high birth rate, although the two are related since most of the young immigrants who arrived over the past five to 10 years are at the right age for starting a family.
One of the interesting facts to emerge from this census is that the biggest non-national group here now is no longer the British (who were always here in high numbers because of our trading ties and because a lot of older Brits like to retire here).
The biggest non-national group here now is the Poles, at 122,585. The number of Poles here has increased by a staggering 94% over the past five years, even though for most of this time the Irish economy has been collapsing and the Polish economy has been growing.
Despite the ongoing arrival of large numbers of non-nationals to live here over the past five years, the pace of immigration has been slowing down since the economic downturn really started in 2008. But it's still continuing.
For example, the census data shows that 33,674 foreign nationals moved to Ireland in the four months to April 2011 when the census was taken. The census people say that this “confirms Ireland as a destination of choice for people from a wide range of countries,” despite the high unemployment and economic difficulties we are having.
The population and immigration statistics raise many questions about where we are going as a country and about the kind of society we will have in 20 or 30 years.
There are obviously big questions about whether ongoing immigration on this scale is a good thing, particularly since the Irish economy is bankrupt and we can no longer afford the very high level of welfare payments that are the norm here. Given that cutbacks are inevitable, should these be targeted in a way that will discourage immigration?
There are many big questions like that to be considered. But there are smaller questions as well.
For example, this census asked questions about foreign languages and English capability for the first time.
The results were interesting.
Of the 544,357 non-Irish nationals living here now, 514,068 said that they speak a foreign language (presumably their own language) inside their Irish homes. They were also asked how well they could speak English, and almost 80,000 said not very well, including over 9,000 who did not speak English at all.
Assuming that immigrants indulged in wishful thinking on their census forms like the locals -- and given the fear that many immigrants would have about admitting that their English is not very good -- it is safe to assume that the real situation is considerably worse than this.
That has serious implications about how effectively our schools can work, especially at a time when they are being criticized for falling behind in many areas.
Most schools are already complaining about cutbacks in resources. Will we have to divert resources in future to English teaching, even though computer skills is still not part of the school curriculum because we can't afford it? How many ICT jobs will we lose in the future as a result?
Census 2011 raises lots of questions. But you won't hear any answers from our politically correct Irish politicians.