Sunday 22 October 2017

Irish welcome refugees but fear terrorists

Poll confirms the Irish are tolerant towards refugees, but still have concerns that need to be addressed, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The Irish have an awful knack of beating themselves up about their failings, real or imagined, and few subjects bring on the self-flagellation more than our attitude towards immigration.

It's become commonplace to slate the Irish for being less than welcoming to those fleeing war or economic difficulty, and contrast that unfavourably with the welcome which Irish people received abroad in their hours of need.

It may be true that the Irish did spread like dandelion seeds around the world, but it wasn't always to a warm welcome.

Frequently they faced racism and discrimination, too. They had to build that warm welcome through hard work, by making a contribution to those societies, by being good citizens.

And in return, Ireland didn't shut the door. Under a long-standing agreement, now potentially under threat in Brexit negotiations, the British were always free to come to Ireland on the same terms that the Irish went to the UK.

That they did so in fewer numbers was because Ireland's economic hardship made it a less attractive destination, but tens of thousands did come to settle here nonetheless, until they now make up more than 2pc of the population according to the 2011 Census, and, with rare exceptions, faced little hostility.

Given that whole 800 years of oppression thing, it doesn't suggest Ireland is unwelcoming.

Of course, the British are not that dissimilar, socially or culturally, to the Irish, so there were fewer barriers to integration; but 6pc of the population comes from other EU countries, mainly Poland and the Baltic states, and more than 2pc of people who live here were born in Asia or Africa. In total, more than one in 10 people in Ireland were not born here.

The country's population is more diverse than that of Italy, Denmark or Portugal, to name just a handful of countries; and again, that integration has been achieved with remarkably little conflict.

Liberal mortification at our supposed lack of sophistication is all very well, but that the Irish have a welcoming streak is confirmed by the latest Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll, which finds that more than half (52pc) of people believe that the greater cosmopolitanism which comes from a multi-cultural society has a positive effect, with fewer than one in three agreeing with the view that it does not; and there's equally broad consensus that "non-Irish" workers contribute hugely to the economy.

Similarly, only 24pc would protest against refugee centres in their own communities, with 54pc saying that they would not; and we should be careful too before making lazy presumptions about the one in four who don't want refugee centres. The knee-jerk response is to think of them as rural rednecks, but closer analysis of the figures reveals that the highest percentage of objectors are actually among Leinster residents and Sinn Fein supporters.

Perhaps these people do so out of a fear of being "swamped" by refugees, and some reassurance that the numbers are comparatively small would help.

Or they might fear that local services, already stretched, might not cope with new pressures.

The key factor seems to be fostering a sense of being in control - a word that has become toxified lately by its associations with Trumpism and Brexit, but which simply expresses a deep psychological need in people to have some say over their own environment.

That's what has been lost in recent years; politically, the consequences have been explosive.

Finding a balance between the Government's duty to resettle refugees in desperate straits and a need to keep local populations onside is what matters; and on that score, the will of the Irish people, as expressed in this poll, could not be clearer.

Three in four believe that local residents should be involved in planning preparations with their local authorities when refugees are being housed.

Only 15pc think local residents should not be consulted. This question offers the first chance to gauge reaction to the recent controversy after the decision to move 80 Syrian refugees into the former Abbeyfield hotel in Ballaghaderreen in Co Roscommon.

Locals in the town seemed to be concerned by two things.

One, that they had not been consulted.

Two, that the eventual number of Syrians in the town was projected to expand to more than 200, a significant demographic change in a town of only 2,000 residents, given a lack of extra resources to cope.

Irish Times religious correspondent Patsy McGarry, a native of Ballaghaderreen, declared that the Government had no reason to apologise for the lack of consultation, reasoning: "It would merely have provided a platform for the naysayers who are always with us."

This appears to suggest that the people only give the "wrong" answers if asked, so best not ask them at all. Why bother with democracy at all if the great unwashed are so terribly unenlightened?

The words of one local farmer at the time back up these poll findings: "The people in charge should have let people know about this 12 months ago. Everything is underhand in this country."

It's not racist to worry about a large influx of migrants. Numbers alone can stretch local services.

UK guidelines on the resettlement of unaccompanied Syrian child refugees state that "no region is expected to have in excess of 0.07pc in relation to their current total child population".

Concurrently, no local authority is permitted to refuse a home to child refugees up to that figure.

The point is that both sides know what's expected of them, and can plan accordingly.

That's the only way to manage these decisions with a minimum of resentment. Irish people, according to this poll, largely agree.

"Ask us," they seem to be saying. "We're reasonable people. But don't make decisions over our heads and expect us to be happy about it."

One of the worries which needs to be addressed is that of security.

Another woman in Ballaghaderreen made that point strongly last month: "If they are Syrian, they are welcome - as long as they are not infiltrated by jihadists."

This latest poll confirms that, with more than six out of 10 people admitting to concerns that terrorists may enter the country via the migrant programme.

Again, there's nothing irrational or racist about that. It's happened elsewhere.

Security services believe that men behind the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks last year entered Europe as refugees using fake passports.

If 62pc of Irish people are fearful that the same thing could happen here - a figure that is almost identical to polls conducted on the same question in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy - then they should be listened to, not dismissed as irrational, especially when more than half also feel that the Islamic community in Ireland does not do enough to encourage integration. Tolerance has to work both ways.

That's what this poll highlights. Far from being racist and unwelcoming, the Irish have a rational and tolerant attitude towards immigration.

They're not hostile to refugees, in fact they can see huge benefits from opening the door.

But they do want a greater say in how these issues are handled, and they want refugees themselves to do more to try to fit in, because not making a nuisance of yourself is an Irish virtue, too, and there's nothing wrong with defending that either.

Sunday Independent

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