Tuesday 21 October 2014

Ireland's Thirtysomethings: We are not racist, but we fear for jobs

While almost half of all people in our poll have an issue with immigration, naked racism has little to do with it, writes Carol Hunt

Published 10/11/2013 | 01:00

ARE YOU a racist? No, I didn't think so. Me neither. And that would seem to go for the majority of us.

Surprised? Particularly after recent events and media interpretations which would seem to suggest the opposite? Well, maybe we shouldn't be. Where foreign nationals are concerned, our attitudes may appear to be contrary – contradictory, even – but scratch the surface and we see a much more nuanced and complex view toward immigration than we previously suspected.

Our poll reveals that less than half (47 per cent) of all 20-49-year-olds surveyed believe that there are far too many immigrants coming into Ireland. Indeed, nearly 60 per cent of 30-39-year-olds disagree with the notion that the number of immigrants in the country is too high. Not surprisingly, this group had the highest percentage of foreign nationals as friends and workmates (64 per cent).

And in the greater 20-49 group, more than half (53 per cent) say that there are foreign nationals amongst their closest circle of friends and work mates. The sub-group who registered the highest anti-immigration sentiment (54 per cent) were, not surprisingly, the one which reported the lowest number of foreign nationals as close friends or workmates: the older 40-49 year group. Go figure.

This poll would suggest that exposure to people of foreign nationality, as friends and as work-mates, does much to contribute to a more positive view of immigration. What we know, we are less fearful of. This isn't rocket science – it's one of the reasons why integrating children in local schools regardless of race or religion is so important for healthy social cohesion. If we have a chance to get to know people, to learn, work and socialise with them, we, more often than not, end up liking and respecting them and their cultures. We may even find ourselves going out with or marrying them – a very healthy 68 per cent of our poll disagree with the statement "I would never date or have a romantic relationship with a foreign national".

Even more encouraging, if our children find a partner of foreign nationality that they're prepared to bring home, they need have no fear – only 10 per cent of those polled said that they would be "disappointed if my son or daughter married a foreign national", with a very strong 74 per cent saying they "disagreed with that statement".

So, is the problem we have with immigration and foreign nationals less one of racism and more to do with xenophobia? What's the difference, I hear you ask. Aren't the words practically interchangeable?

Well, no. Xenophobia is a fear or dislike of the unknown or the different. The dislike really comes from the fear – and it's hardly surprising that a country which was profoundly and exceptionally mono-cultural for so many years should exhibit some signs of xenophobia when confronted with a sudden change in ethnic demographics. Racism, on the other hand, is a discrimination against another race, based on the belief that one's own race is superior.

For over a century, Ireland was a mono-cultural state, full of white Catholic faces. We feared and mistrusted British Protestants but had little experience of any other cultures, religions or nationalities. From the foundation of the State up until the early Nineties, no-one else wanted to live here – and sure, who could blame them, many of our own citizens didn't either.

From 1990 to 1994, (Eurostat figures) Ireland was the only EU state with a negative net migration rate. And then it all changed.

By 2007, Ireland had the third highest migration rate across the 27 EU member states – 14.5 migrants per 1,000 inhabitants – surpassed only by Spain and Cyprus. For a people who had so little experience of foreigners living on their own shores, mistakes were inevitably made and prejudices expressed. However, initially Irish attitudes towards immigrants were noted as "very positive", but these became increasingly negative as the economic situation worsened and unemployment skyrocketed.

So, at first glance, although the B&A study would suggest that nearly half our people polled have issues with immigration, it also points up that naked racism doesn't seem to have much to do with it. Yes, we certainly see touches of xenophobia but in the main this fear seems to be fear for our jobs – and unemployment costs. Of course, we have racist individuals and racist incidents and we need to do a lot more work toward immigrant integration. Last month Nasc (Irish Immigrant Support Centre) made a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence on the issue of racism and integration.

But mass racism? There seems to be little evidence that we have organised political racism in Ireland as seen in Britain and continental Europe. Which doesn't mean it can't happen. But, as our poll shows, we need to do all we can to encourage the integration of our foreign nationals into all areas of Irish life. And we need responsible political leadership rather than vote-grabbing populist rhetoric in order to achieve that.

Sunday Independent

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