Wednesday, February 4, 2015

After Paris

Below is the unedited text of my article in yesterday's Irish Independent:

Did the recent attacks in Paris change Irish views on immigration?  The ‘short answer’ is yes, at least for 30% of all Irish adults in a recent Amárach poll.  However, the ‘long answer’ requires us to step back and examine the experience of immigration in Ireland, and some of the differences between our experience and those of the UK.

First of all we need to distinguish between immigration from the rest of the EU, and immigration from outside the EU.  A ComRes poll towards the end of last year found that only 17% of Britons thought the current level of immigration from the rest of the EU was ‘good for Britain’, similarly only 16% thought immigration from outside the EU was good for Britain.  In marked contrast, the Amárach poll shows that the majority (53%) of Irish people think the current level of immigration from the rest of the EU is ‘good for Ireland’, falling to 32% for the current level of immigration from outside the EU (still twice the UK level).

Ireland and Britain were among the few countries to completely open their borders to workers from all EU countries upon the accession of ten central and East European countries back in May 2004. Ten years on, what has been the impact?  In the same ComRes survey, only 1 in 4 Britons felt the contribution of immigrants in the previous ten years had been positive for the British economy, 40% felt it was negative.  Here in Ireland, over a third (35%) sees a positive contribution from immigrants looking back ten years, only 30% view it as negative.

Of course, the contribution of immigrants has not simply been economic.  When asked about the impact of immigration on culture, we again find a marked contrast between Irish and British experiences.  Just 21% of Britons feel immigration has been positive for British culture and 49% feel it has been negative (the balance are neutral).  In Ireland, 32% feel the contribution to Irish culture has been positive, and only 25% feel it has been negative (half the UK level).

Curiously, Irish men tend to have a more positive view of the economic benefits of immigration than Irish women, but a more negative view than women of the cultural benefits.  There is also a significant generation gap in Ireland when it comes to immigration and its perceived impact.  Essentially those under 35 are significantly more positive about the experience, while those over 35 (and especially over 55) are much more negative.

So if we tend to be more positive than our neighbours about the impact of past immigration, what about the present and the future?  The Amárach poll, conducted just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack, has found a more negative turn in sentiment in Ireland.  On the issue of immigration to Ireland from outside the EU, the vast majority of Irish people (71%) want stricter controls, 20% want them to remain as they are, and only 8% want looser controls.  And while there are still big differences between age groups, even among 16-24 year olds the majority (53%) want stricter controls.

Which brings us to the recent attacks in Paris: the majority of Irish people (54%) have not changed their opinion about immigration because of the attacks.  However, a sizeable minority – 30% – have changed their opinion, and the rest are not sure.  Women are more likely to have changed than men (32% vs 27%), while those in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to have changed than those in higher groups.

What has changed?  Among the 30%, the biggest change has been concern that immigration controls are not strict enough, followed by a decline in trust in some immigrant groups – Muslims in particular.  Others are fearful of future attacks, perhaps even in Ireland, and worried about Islamist terrorists – such as those who instigated the attack in Paris – entering the country.  

The attack on Charlie Hebdo also raised important questions about blasphemy.  Nearly half (46%) of all Irish adults think that the laws against blasphemy in Ireland should be removed, 24% think they should not be removed, and the rest don’t know.  Men are more likely than women to favour removal (50% vs 42%), though there are few age differences on this one.

But removing laws on blasphemy (ignoring the merits and demerits of such a move for now) may not be enough to mitigate some of the pressures that now emerging.  Just weeks after the Paris attacks, only a third of Irish people are optimistic about future relations between different religions and faith communities in Ireland, while 30% are pessimistic.  Optimism is highest among 16-24 year olds, which is probably just as well as they are the ones who will have to navigate the complex future of change and uncertainty that lies ahead.

BY THE NUMBERS:

% who think current level of immigration from inside the EU is good:
Ireland = 53%
UK = 17%

% who think current level of immigration from outside the EU is good:
Ireland = 32%
UK = 16%

% who think immigration over past ten years has been positive for the economy:
Ireland = 35%
UK = 26%

% who think immigration over past ten years has been positive for national culture:
Ireland = 32%
UK = 21%

% agree controls on immigration to Ireland from outside the EU:
Should be stricter = 72%
Should be looser = 8%
Should be remain as they are = 20%

If opinion about immigration has changed since attacks in Paris:
Yes = 30%
No = 54%
Not sure = 16%

Should laws against blasphemy in Ireland be removed:
Yes = 46%
No = 24%
Don’t know = 30%

Optimistic or pessimistic about future relations in Ireland between different religions and faith communities:
Optimistic = 33%
Pessimistic = 30%
Neither/nor = 37%

Sources:
Amárach online poll of 1,000 Irish adults, January 2015
ComRes online poll of 2,019 British adults, November 2014

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