OPINION: Derry: Ireland’s only shrinking city? - Steve Bradley

Regeneration expert STEVE BRADLEY believes this year’s census could prove vital for Derry’s standing as a city. For decades, Derry has been the second biggest city in NI and the fourth largest on the island. However, both Lisburn and Limerick are in danger of overtaking us population-wise. If that happens, says Steve Bradley, we could fall to being only NI’s third and Ireland’s sixth city - impacting on Derry’s stature and ability to attract investment etc.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 11:42 am

This Sunday is Census Day across Northern Ireland. And, while most attention will inevitably focus on what that count reveals about NI’s religious balance, it is likely to expose a less obvious dynamic that has huge implications for our city.

For as long as anyone can remember, Derry has been described as NI’s second city and the fourth largest on the island. That statement proclaims to the world that we’re an important player on the Irish stage and also supports the argument that we need the kind of infrastructure, higher education etc., expected from a city of such status.

In recent years, however, Derry’s population has begun to change in subtle but profound ways. Population size is determined by three key factors - births, deaths and migration/immigration. The number of people being born in Derry has declined in recent years and is predicted to continue doing so into the future while annual deaths are rising. This is slowing down the natural rate of population growth here. Our population is currently one of Europe’s youngest – with 34% aged under 25 and 16% below 16. But Derry’s limited educational and employment opportunities make it difficult to retain our young, and we don’t attract enough new residents from elsewhere in the country (migration) or from overseas (immigration) to replace them. All of which is contributing to an ageing population here.

Steve Bradley.

The proportion of those aged over 65 in Derry (i.e. adults of retirement age) is expected to soar by 63% over the next two decades, whilst every age group below 65 is predicted to fall (by between 11% and 17%). Added together, all of these statistics paint a picture of a city and district which is on-track to suffer from a persistent decline and ageing of its population if things don’t change.

The biggest demographic challenge facing Derry in future years is the fact that what was previously just a slowdown in population growth is, instead, expected to turn into an outright decline in population from 2022 onwards. In short, Derry looks set to shrink.

An almost 5% decline in Derry’s population is expected to take place at a time when Northern Ireland as a whole will see its population grow by a similar percentage. Only one other council district in NI is expected to suffer a declining population over the next quarter century - the neighbouring Causeway Coast and Glens (a 3% decline). Every other city on the island is predicted to increase in size over the same time period – particularly those in the Republic. It should be a cause of major concern at Stormont that Derry is expected to be the only shrinking city during an era of rapid population growth across the island.

Derry’s demographic future contrasts heavily with that of the Lisburn-Castlereagh district which has been NI’s fastest growing place for some time. It is expected to add another 28,000 people to its population by 2043 - the equivalent of two new Strabanes. Whilst some people deride Lisburn as a suburb of Belfast and ‘not really a city’, the truth is that it is probably already larger than Derry. And, if it isn’t by now, then it looks likely that it will be soon. We, therefore, appear to be on track to lose our status as NI’s second largest city.

The picture is no better if we look at Derry’s relative standing versus cities in the south. The Republic’s population is growing twice as fast as Northern Ireland’s, with a further increase of a million people expected between now and 2040. With ROI already heavily skewed towards the Greater Dublin area, its government is keen to ensure that 75% of this projected future growth takes place elsewhere in the State. It is, therefore, spending €116bn over the next 20 years on its ‘Project Ireland 2040’ masterplan. That places particular emphasis on expanding the Republic’s four main regional cities - Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford - which it wants to become “viable urban centres of scale which can act as a counterbalance to the continued growth of Dublin”.

Future housing, employment, infrastructure and regeneration efforts are, therefore, being concentrated on those cities, with the target of increasing the size of each by 50-60% over the next 20 years. This is in marked contrast to the approach in NI, where Stormont prefers a ‘laissez faire’ approach in which it just lets populations grow of their own accord (which in such an unbalanced jurisdiction inevitably means mostly in Greater Belfast and the East).

Amongst the ROI’s cities, Limerick is the main challenger to Derry’s current status. Limerick has experienced a remarkable turnaround in economic fortunes over the last decade, with significant population growth as a result. The Republic’s 2016 census showed Limericks’s population closing in on Derry’s – with 94,192 people in its urban area (up 4% in 5 years) vs 105,086 in the Derry Urban Area (2011 figure). And, with almost half its population under the age of 35, Limerick looks set to continue growing rapidly in the years to come.

So, not only does Lisburn appear on course to knock us off our perch as NI’s second biggest city, the stellar rise of Limerick could push us into sixth place in the all-Ireland city table, too. Don’t rule out a challenge from Galway either, by the way. It has attracted a lot of immigration in recent years, and is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities - with a population of 80,000 in 2016 (up 10% in a decade). On current trends, Galway could well have outgrown Derry by the middle of this century which would relegate us to being merely Ireland’s 7 th biggest city.

The good news is that population projections are just that – projections. They may not come to pass – especially if action is taken to directly influence/alter them. Though, as the old saying goes, ‘Demography is Destiny’. So, unless action is taken, Derry will be on course to fulfil the gloomy population projections outlined above.

There are a number of things that can be done to ensure that Derry does not become Ireland’s only shrinking city and can, instead, be returned to population growth again.

University expansion is the silver bullet for Derry’s declining population. Fulfilling the long-standing promise to add another 6,000 students to the Magee campus would instantly increase Derry’s population by over 5.5% - erasing our expected population decline and returning us to positive growth instead. It would provide a huge boost to the city’s population in the key 18-25 age bracket and permanently increase the youth demographic here. More students would increase the working age of our population. And it would also be the fastest way to increase the Protestant population on the Cityside, thereby helping to reverse Derry’s stark polarisation. Significant expansion of Derry’s student population would have an instant and game-changing impact upon our city’s demographics in a way that no other single decision could.

Turning to the economy, a city’s population structure (size, age profile etc.,) will tend to mirror the level of economic opportunity that exists there. Significant improvement in the economy of our city and the wider North-West region is essential in helping to create a growing population here.

It would enable more of our young people to remain (including some of the students mentioned above) whilst also attracting new residents to relocate here. Derry will continue to struggle demographically for as long as its economy is allowed to under-perform.

The population projections listed here for Northern Ireland do not consider any intervention strategies that would alter the demographic path of each city. They simply take the existing population profile and patterns and extrapolate them into the future mathematically. We are, therefore, not doomed to follow these projections unless we choose to do nothing to influence them. Belfast City intends to buck its projected slow population growth through the addition of almost 70,000 new residents by 2035. And Derry is taking steps to alter its trajectory, too. Chief amongst these is the City Deal which is expected to create an extra 7,000 jobs here over the next decade. Recent announcements regarding Health Science and Medical student places at Magee will, likewise, have a small but welcome impact upon our future population.

Whilst the Republic is making genuine efforts to secure greater balance across its cities and regions, there appears to be no genuine appetite to do likewise within Stormont.

Worse – there doesn’t even appear to be recognition that any problem exists, let alone an acceptance that government has a duty to help address it. Until Stormont and the Civil Service genuinely embrace regional balance – complete with the long-term strategies, targets and funding required to help deliver it – Derry and large parts of the West will continue to play second fiddle to Greater Belfast and the East in population terms.

One way to increase Derry’s population would be to change how our city is defined. The ‘Derry Urban Area’ is currently defined as Derry City, Culmore, Strathfoyle and Newbuildings. An argument could be made to include areas like Drumahoe, Ardmore and Tullyally within that calculation.

Cork City expanded by almost 80,000 people overnight when its boundary was officially re-drawn in 2019. That change was driven by a practical desire to ensure that the entire city was unified under a single council area, however, which is not a problem facing Derry. So, tinkering with the boundaries here would be a largely symbolic gesture that wouldn’t address any of the underlying issues that are driving the decline in our city’s population.

This has not been an easy article for someone who is passionate about Derry to write and some readers may consider it unduly negative. None of that alters the fact that official projections state that Derry is on-track to become the only shrinking city in an Ireland that is experiencing significant growth.

It is also probable that we will slide down the league table of the largest cities within both NI and the island – perhaps to as low as 7 th place in a few decades.

Yet, there has been no public debate whatsoever about what is a significant issue for our city.

Fortunately, there is much we can do to write our own destiny on this, through pursuing the kind of changes that will really help Derry to fulfil its potential economically and demographically.

It will require, at least in part, a change of heart and strategy from both Stormont and Ulster University (or an alternative Higher Education provider), however, which is the challenge on which our elected representatives must be focused.

We owe it to future generations in Derry to ensure that they inherit a city that is vibrant and growing, rather than the only one that is shrinking.


Limerick has experienced the most dramatic change of fortunes of any Irish city in recent years. Barely a decade ago, it was still trying to shake off its ‘Stab City’ reputation. Feuding drug gangs led to it becoming the ‘murder capital’ of Europe in 2008. And, shortly after that, the economic crash hit which led to a drop in the city’s population.

In 2013, Limerick’s City and County Councils responded with a detailed Economic and Spatial Plan to transform the town by 2030. The plan has been remarkably successful – creating over 14,000 jobs across the city and county by 2018 and attracting more than €2 billion of investment.

Unemployment in the Mid-West region also plummeted from 19.5% in 2012 to just 5% by 2019. All this has happened without much fanfare.The city’s population has also witnessed significant increases and by the time of the Republic’s next census, in April 2022, it may well be bigger than Derry. Limerick city centre, in particular, has experienced rapid population growth – with the Shannon A and B electoral districts soaring by 40% between 2011 and 2016. Higher Education has also played a key role in the city’s turnaround – with 24,000 students across 3 institutions, including international students from over 100 countries. And Limerick has also had Ireland’s top-ranked Secondary School for the last 6 years in a row (Coláiste Laurel Hill). With almost half of the city’s population under the age of 35, Limerick’s population looks set to continue registering strong growth for many years to come.

There is much that Derry could learn from this unsung success story.