Looking beyond Scotland – #2 Ireland

Irish flag

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) conducts a census in Ireland every five years. The last census took place in 2016, the next census is set to take place in 2021.

Census data is used for many purposes, including:

  • National planning for the provision of health care, education and employment etc.
  • Detailed population figures at a local level, which can identify the likely demand for facilities, areas of high unemployment etc.
  • Ensure a fair distribution of political representatives across Ireland’s population.
  • An accurate measure of migration figures.

In 2016, the census presented one question related to sex:

This section of the census did not ask a question but presented a box that stated ‘Sex’ and asked respondents to mark ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. Upon further investigation into how people were expected to understand this section of the census, CSO confirmed that respondents could interpret the section as they wished and tick whichever box they identified with.

CSO’s standard sex classification was last approved in 2002 and described sex as ‘based on the biological difference between male and female’. Under this classification, respondents could be classified as ‘Male’, ‘Female’ or ‘Unknown’.

In 2018, a spokesperson for CSO explained to the Irish Independent that the organisation regularly receives telephone calls from members of the public who have difficulty completing the census when only male and female options were presented.

CSO has therefore advised census respondents to:

Tick both the male and female boxes or else tick none of the boxes.

In situations where both or neither boxes were ticked, CSO would randomly allocate a gender to the respondent.

Ahead of the 2016 census, Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) shared guidance for trans respondents on ways to complete the census.

In line with CSO’s guidance, TENI recommended that trans respondents should put a dash through the box that best matched their identity. Trans respondents may also wish to write ‘Transgender’ in the space above the section.

For non-binary respondents, TENI suggested respondents put a dash through both or neither of the boxes and write ‘Transgender (non-binary)’ in the sex section of the form.

Like other national census organisations, CSO is testing questions ahead of the 2021 census and is using expanded responses options for sex and gender questions in its household surveys (regular surveys, on a range of themes, that involve a smaller sample of the Irish population).

Key points:

  • The most recent Irish census (2016) presented a section entitled ‘Sex’ and asked respondents to select ‘Male’ or ‘Female’.
  • Ambiguity about the section’s meaning was intentional and respondents could select whichever option they best identified with.
  • CSO confirmed that non-binary respondents, who did not identify with either male or female options, could mark both or neither of the options presented.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality, diversity and inclusion researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher, writer and activist based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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