Sunday, September 23, 2007

What is the Irish for 'e pluribus unum'?

I was part of a discussion on Karen Coleman's Wide Angle show on Newstalk 106 this morning. One of the topics we explored was that of integrating immigrants into Irish communities. I referred to the recent work Robert Putnam (of 'Bowling Alone' fame) has done on the impact of immigration on host societies (in the United States, Canada, Holland and other countries). His conclusions are challenging:

"It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity. It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable. Max Weber instructed would-be political leaders nearly a century ago that ‘Politics is a slow boring of hard boards.’ The task of becoming comfortable with diversity will not be easy or quick, but it will be speeded by our collective efforts and in the end well worth the effort."

Putnam's paper is entitled 'E Pluribus Unum' - 'one out of many'. The motto has historically been that of the United States Government, referring initially to the unity of the different states that came together after the war of independence (we had one of those) and subsequently for some to the 'melting pot' ethnic mix of America after the civil war (we had one of those too).

The bottom line for Putnam is that immigration tends to undermine the 'social glue' that binds communities together (people are less trusting, watch more TV by themselves etc when they experience rapid immigration). He acknowledges the point made by others that the benefits of immigration are evident at a national level (productivity, economic growth, labour supply etc) but the costs are experienced by local communities (pressures on housing, education, health etc). By the way, for interesting attempts to quantify the economic impact of recent immigration from Eastern Europe on the UK economy see here. I wonder what a similar analysis for Ireland would reveal?

How then to avoid the loss of social capital through immigration at a local level? Putnam points to the importance of local sources of community bonding and integration. In Ireland there are at least two:
  1. The Catholic Church (not very palatable to many in the media, but the reality for the majority of citizens in Ireland).
  2. The GAA: possibly even stronger than the Catholic Church these days in rallying local energies and commitment.
But that's probably not enough given the waning incidence of church going and the lack of familiarity with hurling and gaelic football among immigrants. Putnam points to one other source of social cohesion between immigrants and host communities in the USA besides religion and sport, namely: the army.

Should we therefore have conscription into Ireland's defence forces to create our own 'melting pot', especially among second generation immigrants? Personally I would be very much against such a move (civil liberties and all that). But what about a wider concept of 'National Service'? What if, instead of transition year, all secondary level students went straight through to Leaving Cert and then were required to spend a year (away from home) doing their 'National Service' in voluntary groups, charities, sports organisations or indeed the defence forces? It would break down social class barriers (probably more pervasive and damaging than ethnic differences right now), as well as integrating young people from all backgrounds into a shared experience.

Even this, of course, is not a palliative for the 'costs' of immigration. In Britain, the debate on this issue is well under way, and it would seem that the ideology of multi-culturalism (which essentially denies that there are any adverse consequences from immigration other than those caused by the actions of the host population) appears effectively to be dead. As always, we have the opportunity to learn from Britain's mistakes and to avoid them. I suspect that, as always, we will fail to do so and blunder on with making the same mistakes. But you never know: our Taoiseach is a big fan of Robert Putnam (who was over speaking to the Cabinet recently) and it might do no harm to get him back to kick start a national debate before it becomes a national row ...


  1. Interestingly a year of national service would have unseen ill effects on society, besides the huge cost (which realistically would rule it out anyway) research shows that forcing someone to do a year's national service makes them less likely to do public service over the course of their lifetime as they feel that they have paid their dues.

    You might find both of these posts on the Becker Posner blog of interest. I think you would find their site worth following:

  2. Some interesting points Piaras. Thanks for the links to the Becker Posner Blog - to my shame, I had not come across Becker's blog despite being a big fan of Gary's since my post-grad days (long, long ago ...).

    Just a few quick comments on your (fair) points:

    1. what is the cost of NOT introducing something like national service - now and in the future (costs in terms of perpetuating social divisions along class lines, and emerging social divisions along ethnic/racial lines): hardly zero I would have thought.

    2. I'm not sure why it matters if someone is less likely to do public service later in life having done national service: participation in public service is hardly something to be encouraged per se (unless you extend the definition to include voluntary/charitable work, and even then wouldn't less social division resulting from national service reduce the need for certain charities?).

    Of course, Becker/Posner may already have answered these challenges - I'll read your suggested links and let you know!

  3. It's more the huge cost in setting up such a scheme. I know it's a horrible thing to say but do the costs outweigh the benefits?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...