independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Immigration: the debate that dare not speak its name

A man carrying a bag adorned with the colours of Britain's Union Jack flag steps into a bus departing from Sofia's central bus station to London
A man carrying a bag adorned with the colours of Britain's Union Jack flag steps into a bus departing from Sofia's central bus station to London

FOR a people that reputedly love to talk, it's extraordinary how little we consider and debate some of the issues that profoundly shape our nation.

For better or worse, we almost sleepwalked into the eurozone. Our long policy of neutrality is utterly unquestioned despite the obvious ethical issues it raises. And nobody, or virtually nobody, even thought to shout stop during the Celtic Tiger boom/bubble.

Immigration, unfortunately, also falls into that category. Across Europe -- but particularly in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany -- a massive debate is currently taking place about the lifting of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians accessing the EU labour market.

Here, barely a word has been uttered in public discourse about the issue. How many people even knew that the Government actually lifted those restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians two years ago? Since the restrictions were removed, the numbers coming from those two countries has doubled, although the actual figures are relatively small -- 7,235 Romanians and 835 Bulgarians came here in 2013.

In case you think this is shaping up to be a piece bemoaning immigration and warning of welfare tourism, let me put my cards firmly on the table. I believe the large influx of immigrants in the past 20 years -- to the point where 15pc of the workforce was not born in Ireland -- has very much been a positive thing, both for our economy and our society.

Studies across Europe have shown that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they cost in benefits or healthcare. And the half a million plus immigrants living in Ireland have brought vibrancy, flair and diversity to the monocultural society we had known.

But that doesn't mean we should ignore the impact that immigration inevitably has had and discuss how best to manage that immigration and the challenges it inevitably brings.

That debate is going on in Britain. Not all of it has been pleasant or measured. Some of it has been downright offensive. One MP warned that the UK would be "importing a wave of crime from Romania and Bulgaria".

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson has put forward a more balanced perspective, but admitted the BBC had been too worried about airing views that might offend viewers and not enough by the offence caused to people who did not hear their own concerns reflected on air.

Robinson has called for an "honest, frank and open discussion about immigration -- the upsides and the downsides".

That seems a sensible idea in any healthy democracy. But it doesn't seem to be happening here. Why not?

The fact that the large-scale immigration happened at a time of huge economic prosperity is certainly a factor. Ireland was one of only three countries that fully opened its labour market to the 10 new entrants to the EU back in 2004.

At the time there were huge shortages in the labour market, so the huge rate of immigration was a win-win. The immigrants wanted to come to work and we needed people to fill job vacancies.

By the time the economy turned down and unemployment soared, those immigrants were well settled in our communities.

There were other factors at play. There was our long history of emigration. The largely positive perception of the EU -- until recently anyway -- also meant people accepted that Ireland had done well from Europe and part of that deal meant people coming here to work too.

And the reality is that the majority of immigrants came from relatively similar cultural backgrounds -- the two biggest groups living in Ireland presently are Britons and Poles. However much we mightn't like to think it, it would be naive to believe that didn't help in the process of integration.

But does all of that mean we have seamlessly made the transition to a multi-cultural Ireland?

To be fair, things have gone pretty smoothly. But it would be sticking our collective heads in the sand to think there weren't problems or resentments, particularly in less prosperous areas.

And ignoring those difficulties won't make them go away. However unpleasant the debate may be at times in the UK, it's surely better (particularly given the strength of the pro-immigration argument) that they're having one.

Political correctness seems to have dictated that on this side of the Irish Sea anyone even raising the issue of immigration is out of bounds.

It is of course a good thing that our political parties have resisted the temptation to make political capital out of immigration. It's a good thing a party like the BNP or even UKIP hasn't even come close to emerging here.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about immigration. The fear of being branded racist or xenophobic seems to have stymied the "honest, frank and open discussion" Robinson has called for in Britain. And that can't be a good thing.

SHANE COLEMAN IS POLITICAL EDITOR OF NEWSTALK 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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