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ESRC Data Archive Bulletin:
Demographic Statistics in Northern Ireland

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Text: Rona Campbell ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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Demographic Statistics in Northern Ireland

Rona Campbell
The Queen's University of Belfast

There is no equivalent of the Offices of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) in Northern Ireland. Instead demographic statistics are gathered by a variety of administrative bodies; the General Register Office, the Census Office (both of which are part of the DHSS); and the four Health and Social Services Boards. Government surveys are undertaken by individual departments, mainly under the auspices of the Policy, Planning and Research Unit which is located in the Department of Finance and Personnel. Partly because of this rather complex situation publication of, and access to demographic data in Northern Ireland is underdeveloped.

Census Data

The Census Office publishes a series of reports containing basic tabulations. Copies of census data for 1971 and 1981 are not generally available although individual academics have obtained data tapes. As the result of an organised protest there was significant non-enumeration in the 1981 census eventually estimated to involve some 44,500 individuals (General Register Office, 1987). Census data obtained by researchers does not seem to have been adjusted for this non-enumeration (for example Policy Research Institute, 1990). Happily non-enumeration does not appear to have been a problem in the most recent census.

Registration Data

The registration of live births, stillbirths and deaths in Northern Ireland follows a broadly similar pattern to that in England and Wales although there are some important differences when it comes to registration of early infant deaths. Furthermore, unlike the OPCS with its extensive FM, DH and VS series of reports, the General Register Office (GRO) in Northern Ireland publishes a very limited amount of information almost all of which is contained in its annual reports. These tend not to be very timely (the latest report available is for 1988) and they have an archaic format with table titles containing such politically incorrect terms as "illegitimacy" and "conjugal conditions". Tabulations are also based on the date an event was registered rather than the date on which it took place.

The limited way in which data are published is compensated for by a great willingness on the part of the GRO to respond positively to ad hoc queries and requests for data. While this usually involves supplying tabulations or listings individual researchers have also been able to obtain raw data. As with the census, registration data are not generally available, however.

New stillbirth and neonatal death certificates were introduced in England and Wales at the beginning of 1986. Unlike standard death certificates which only allow for one underlying cause, these documents permit both fetal and maternal conditions thought to contribute equally to the death to be recorded. Certificates permitting the recording of more than one cause of death have not been introduced into Northern Ireland.

Since 1975 the OPCS has routinely linked the death registration details of an infant dying with the first year of life to birth registration particulars. Birth weight, which is only collected at birth notification, has also been transferred onto the birth registration form since 1975. This linkage has enabled more detailed investigation into the social and biological factors surrounding those infants who die. Such linking of registration data does not take place in Northern Ireland, but a new computerised Child Health System (CHS), based on birth notification, should permit similar analyses when mechanisms for the transfer of pre-coded cause of death details from stillbirth and death registrations are in place. This system (which replaces the Child Health Record Scheme) acts as a call and recall system for a variety of immunisations, vaccinations and screening tests. In addition, a wealth of health data are recorded at birth, throughout infancy and while the child is at school. Each of the four area health boards in Northern Ireland has its own identical CHS and at present there is no aggregate file available for Northern Ireland as a whole. Recommendations that this should be done have been accepted but there are no indications yet as to what degree of access academic researchers will have to this important new dataset (Campbell, 1991).

Other Sources of Data on Fertility

The Northern Ireland Fertility Survey was undertaken in 1983. A clustered random sample of 3,000 women and one in four of their partners were successfully interviewed, which represented a response rate of 63%. A detailed analysis of the results of this survey has been published (Compton and Coward, 1989) but although negotiations are currently underway, survey data are not yet available through the ESRC data archive.

The Continuous Household Survey (described in detail elsewhere in this Bulletin) collects information on family formation on an annual basis.

The 1967 Abortion Act was not extended to Northern Ireland and so the majority of Northern Irish women wishing to terminate their pregnancies travel to England to do so. Notifications of abortions compiled by the OPCS provides the only source of data on this, although numbers for Northern Ireland are probably under recorded as women normally resident in Northern Ireland may given addresses in England.

Migration and Population Projections

Estimates of external migration are compiled by the DHSS from a variety of different sources and published in the Northern Ireland Annual Abstract of Statistics. The Government Actuaries Department produces Population Projections for Northern Ireland based on data supplied by the DHSS. These projections are published in Regional Trends.


None of the data sources mentioned in this article are available through the ESRC Data Archive. To gain access to demographic datasets for Northern Ireland academics researchers have to locate individuals within the public agency concerned who have the authority to release data, and then negotiate the format in which the data will be made available. While the individuals concerned (who regularly move on to other posts within their organisations) are usually helpful, the lack of standardised documentation and limited experience in supplying data for secondary analysis can make this a time consuming and costly process. The development of a Data Archive facility for Northern Ireland would be an important step forward and of benefit to both the academic research community and, because of the diminution in ad hoc requests, the agencies who collect the data.


Campbell, R., (1991) Information Collected on Stillbirths and Infant Deaths in Northern Ireland, Report to the Department of Health and Social Services (NI).
Compton, P.A. and Coward, J. (1989),Fertility and Family Planning in Northern Ireland, Avebury.
General Register Office (1987), Annual Report of the Register General for Northern Ireland HMSO, 1987.
Policy Research Institute (1990),Spatial and Social Variations in the Distribution of Health Indicators in Northern Ireland, Report to the Department of Health and Social Services.

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