Sunday, April 11, 2010

What have immigrants ever done for us?

The killing last week of Toyosi Shittabbey in Tyrrelstown has inevitably provoked much soul-searching about the nature of race relations in Ireland and the wider issue of immigration. Yet the reality is that immigration isn't a concern for most people in Ireland: only 2% in a recent survey thought it one of the two most important issues facing Ireland at the moment (compared to 9% across the EU27 as a whole and 29% next door in the UK).

Why is that? The most obvious reason is that Ireland's very recent experience of immigration coincided with an unprecedented economic boom in which immigrants were seen as filling jobs that would not otherwise be filled. Add to that the obvious fact that such immigrants were, overwhelmingly, white Europeans from culturally Christian countries then it followed that the potential for racial or religious conflict with immigrants (and/or its manipulation by indigenous politicians) was minimised. In marked contrast, the UK has had a very different pattern and experience of immigration, hence the greater level of concern there about the issue. Indeed the remarkable thing is how little antipathy there has been to immigrants even as the boom that brought most of them here has turned to bust: there have been no demands for Irish jobs for Irish workers.

However, it would be naive to think that Ireland has been spared any negative social and political consequences from immigration. The ghettoisation of asylum-seekers in specific locations, coupled with restrictions on their right to take up employment, seems designed to create the potential for racial and religious conflict with the indigenous Irish population in the same catchment areas. Add to the mix the fact that asylum-seekers are overwhelmingly non-white and from cultures other than Christian (e.g.: Nigerians and Pakistanis made up 3 in 10 asylum-seekers in 2009 according to the Office of the Refugees Applications Commissioner), and that potential is heightened further, especially when the catchment areas themselves are subject to worse than average economic conditions.

A number of things will mitigate such potential conflicts. Giving asylum-seekers the right to work if jobs are available might help (one of the few sensible ideas proposed by Social Justice Ireland in their recent report, but heh, credit where credit is due). Moreover, the collapse in the number of refugees applying for asylum in recent years (and the even greater collapse in the number of applications subsequently approved) has certainly assuaged any concerns about the country being 'flooded' by immigrants, or of Ireland been seen as a 'soft touch' in such matters.

The view on Ireland's experience of immigration that I have seen in surveys and focus groups with Irish people can be paraphrased as: "we're happy enough with all the immigrants we've had to date, we needed them after all, but we don't want any more for now thank you, especially with the economy in the state it's in". Though it might be tempting to dismiss such views as "really an expression of fear of things as important, or maybe as trivial, as unfamiliar food and hearing languages we do not understand" (to quote Ferdinand von Prondzynski in an interesting post), I think this is to 'trivialise' the very real tensions that can and do exist between immigrants and the indigenous population in almost every country. Let me quote Robert Putnam again:
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.
It is worth repeating Conor Cruise O'Brien's observation that 'there are no Irish aborigines': we are all of us descended from immigrants via one lineage or another. I suspect that being an immigrant in Ireland has never been easy, but the best - such as Phil Lynott - overcame multiple disadvantages to the inspiration of many others. As I see it, assimilation is best accomplished by enhancing the native culture and society with the energies and complementary values of each new wave of immigrants - creating a better Ireland in the process (in the eyes of both the indigenous population and the newly assimilated one). The trick, of course, is to have an immigration policy that enables this to happen.

We're not there yet: but if the tragedy in Tyrrelstown enables a more rational debate about such matters then perhaps some good will come from an evil act.


  1. I hadn't been on a march since the early 90s when I was in college. The march was about abortion rights. Yesterday I was in town and decided to go on the march for Toyosi. The speakers from the African community were wonderful - full of respect for Ireland, the Gardai, very sensitive to ensuring the march was peaceful and uncontroversial. They even were thoughtful enough to request a minutes silence for the Polish plane crash after a minute's silence for Toyosi. I was very glad I took the time to join the march, to me it felt like an opportunity to show my support for the 'new Irish', the many decent people who are adding and will add so much to our culture and economy in years to come. We must be watchful for racism - it does exist in Ireland, I have seen it myself in how job applications are handled. The work of sports against racism and similar organisations is vital. I think we need more new Irish in politics and the media. From what I have seen and heard the Muslim leaders in Dublin have been commendable in their response to the attack. Toyosi has been referred to as Nigerian, as was pointed out yesterday - he wanted to play for the Irish soccer team, he was Irish or Nigerian-Irish, Irish-Nigerian, but in many papers he was referred to as Nigerian. It was great to hear what I presume was a Nigerian song or anthem sung towards the end of the rally yesterday - new Irish Nigerians singing with pride a song of their culture outside the Dáil that represents them. Thanks for the post on this issue.

  2. Having been born and brought up in Britain, I can confirm that multiculturalism is a failure that has left most people in the big cities fearful and confused. For example, is a Christian symbol an emblem of hatred towards Muslims? In the UK, there is no definitive answer to that question. It is also interesting that racism is now being accepted as stemming only from indigenous white Europeans, here and elsewhere. In the UK there have been many racist attacks by black youths on white and Asian citizens, as well as attacks by Asians on whites in cities such as Burnley. This is uncomfortable for liberal Irish sensibilities, but it is a real issue in communities where immigrants settle in large numbers. Also, in the UK the majority of black immigration was legal, having come from the Caribbean to fill job shortages. Our black immigration is overwhelmingly illegal; with Nigerians having broken Irish law to come here in the first place. The fact that our government admitted its own incompetence at protecting our borders by granting them an amnesty doesn't change the fact that the majority of Africans are here by abusing our laws. This is not conducive to harmonious future relations. I know it's politically incorrect to say all these things, but I also know there's not a country in the world that isn't duty bound to serve it's indigenous population before considering the welfare of others. We shouldn't feel the need to apologise to the world for that.

  3. @ Hugh

    I would just be interested to know where I might find the evidence for your claim that "the majority of Africans are here by abusing our laws". Can you provide a link or a source so that I can read the statistics for myself? I would also like to point out that there are many illegal Irish immigrants in the US who positively contribute to that society.

  4. I lived in England from 1984 to 92, in a very multicultural environment and it was anything but a failure. In fact it was a vibrant, thriving society notwithstanding economic difficulties. Most people there just get on with people of different races or skin colours. I'm living in a part of the US with significant African-American & Hispanic populations. So what? It really doesn't seem to be a big deal: people get along pretty well.
    The same is happening in Ireland and the recent attack, while not unique, is not an everyday occurence.
    So things could be a lot worse. The main challenge I think is to ensure that immigrants, aside from being safe, are able to assimilate. Education is key and there are serious issues here since it take [scarce] resources to facilitate multi-cultural education.

    As an aside, I would be very surpised if most Nigerian immigration is illegal.

  5. @Holbrook: My contention that the majority of Nigerians broke Irish law in order to come here with the intention of permanent residency is derived from, 1. The fact that they are not from the EEA (European Economic Area) and so have no automatic right to come here to work. 2. The fact that they have made up the majority of officially published Asylum Seekers' countries of origin for the last 10 years at least, implying their own recognition of having no legal right to be here. 3. A statement by former Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue, that the only direct route from Nigeria to Ireland was "by balloon", in relation to the EU's 'Dublin Protocol', which requires asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the first European country in which they set foot. 4. An Oireachtas Committee I attended where I heard former Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, explain that "most" Nigerians were illegally entering the Republic by crossing the border after availing of the common travel area between Britain and Northern Ireland, where passports, visas, etc, are not checked. And, of course, if they are not here illegally, why are they still being deported, sometimes in dozens per flight, under the EU scheme to share the cost of deportation flights? As to your point about illegal Irish in the US; I'm not such a hypocrite that I would excuse a law-breaking Irish person and condemn an African for doing the same thing! Any Irish people who are illegally in the States should come home and apply for residency through the correct channels. If they don't want to do that, they run the risk of deportation, and that's fair enough.

    @Kevin: I agree that London, in particular, is a successfully assimilated mix of ethnic groups and cultures, but even there, there are uncertainties about where the boundaries lie. The toxic effect of allowing Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park Mosque to act as an open recruiting station for Al Qaeda for so long, simply because the authorities were terrified of offending Muslims, is a case in point. Also, your reference to African-Americans doesn't really equate to our own recently arrived Africans, as black Americans have been an integral part of the US since before the founding of the Union and, more importantly, have always held the same values in common as their fellow Americans as well as, by and large, being religiously and culturally indistinguishable from white Americans. They also do not have any divided loyalties in respect of allegiance to their country.

    None of this, by the way, implies any doubts about the contribution any African may make to Ireland, or questions the law-abiding nature of anybody who has come to this country. The point I am making is that obedience to the law is the glue that holds civil society together. If we hold some laws in abeyance for some people, even for the best of reasons, then it is very hard to put that genie back in the bottle.

  6. As a Dutch man I can also confirm that multi-cultualism is a failure. This is a pity. Your quote from Putnam is a good one. It is because we do not talk about immigration as ever possibly having a down side that we have no debate but total consnsus. This prediactably leads to problems. In my contry the 2nd biggest party is hard right on imigration. Only now are we having a debate about immigration.

    But now it is coursened because 20 years nobody could question it lest they be accused of racisism.

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