On the radio, not so long ago, the then Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, John O'Donoghue, made the point that Bord Failte had received negative feedback from many visitors to the country, who complained that they met few Irish people working in hotels and restaurants. He mused that this was a legitimate cause for concern. The interviewer on the flagship radio programme automatically suggested that he didn't want foreigners here, which is not what he had said at all. The discussion degenerated into Junior Cert babble about racism, equality and the dignity of immigrants, rather than a response to a legitimate dilemma.
So, let's look at the issue. Ireland is now an immigrant nation. But where do the immigrants work? The CSO produces numbers every quarter showing who works where (www.cso.ie/qnhs). Interestingly, the minister's observations were right. One in three people working in tourism are foreigners and this figure is rising by 7pc per year. In our shops last year, the number of foreign workers increased by over 10pc, while the numbers of Irish workers in retail fell by 1.5pc. In construction, foreign workers account for one in six on the sites.
Significantly, the only area of the economy which is sheltered from competition from immigrants is the public sector, where less than 1pc of workers are foreign born. This does not seem to make any sense, particularly when you understand that after construction, the public sector was the single biggest recruiter in the land last year. Unless of course the Irish public administration -- despite spending millions on campaigns telling us all to embrace diversity -- is itself not too willing to employ foreigners? Surely not!
Immigration is the hand-maiden of economic success and countries need to make decisions and policies to deal with immigration.
This is particularly relevant for Ireland, as we are now part of another unique experiment. Enhanced EU projects mean we have the free movement of labour from countries where the average annual wage is €4,000 and there is no social welfare system to speak of, to countries where the average annual wage is €40,000 and the social welfare system is open-ended. Child benefit alone in Ireland is worth more than the minimum wage in Lithuania. This is creating the biggest peacetime population movement Europe has ever seen, with hundreds of thousands of east Europeans on the move.
Like the widely-predicted "soft landing" in the property market, which no country has ever experienced before, we have replaced a proper discussion of immigration with platitudes and wishful thinking. The old ideological camps seem incapable of analysing the issue.
On the one hand, the right-wing view, best exemplified by IBEC, is that the only issue revolves around absorbing more and more immigrants to satisfy the appetite of the economy. This view states that mass immigration is kosher, so long as it serves to keep the price of labour low. This framework was first adopted by German business circles when, in the early 1970s, Germany ran out of its own people. Fearing inflation from excessive wage claims as the labour market tightened, Germany opened its door to two million Turks. Integrating this community has taken Germany many tortuous years. The main problem with the business view is that you might import "workers", but what you actually get is "people".
If the right have a "workers-not-people" view, the left, on the other hand, have what can be best described as a "united colours of Benetton" approach, where the wisdom of mass immigration is overridden by sanctimony. The right-on, soft-left view appears to be that it is our role to take in as many colours, creeds and peoples as possible and it is up to us to adapt to them. This approach leads to silly censorship, where any questioning of the appropriate level of immigration is immediately slapped down with accusations of racism. Such Orwellian double-think strangles debate.
This default position seems to have been formed in some 1970's prism, when Ireland was homogeneous and all things foreign were seen as progressive, simply because they were foreign. There was a time when the intelligentsia seemed to conclude that the more open you were to foreign influence, the more enlightened you were. Now this "festival of world music" approach to immigration has led to a dialogue of the deaf. This is not only unproductive, but as the interview with the minister evidenced, infantile.
The problem with the public debate on immigration is that it is articulated by people -- journalists, academics and politicians -- whose livelihood is not threatened by immigrants. In contrast, the people at the coal face are given the cold shoulder.
We need to get a handle on this question because one of the big imponderables is whether the immigrants, in the event of a slowdown, will stay or go home.
If they stay, a struggle will ensue between blue-collar Irish workers and the immigrants who are likely to do the jobs cheaper. Many of the Polish and Lithuanian lads live six or seven to a house, as we did in the US in the 1980s, and they'll do anything to keep their costs down. The Irish workers have higher expectations of what life can deliver and, as such, they can't afford, psychologically, to compete with some of the immigrants.
On the other hand, if the immigrants leave, house prices will fall further, as it is the immigrants who are keeping the rental market buoyant.
So we have to ask ourselves whether we want the cost of deflation to be borne by young Irish workers, or middle-aged Irish landlords. Your answer will depend on what generation you belong to.
David Mc Williams' book "The Generation Game" is out now. www.davidmcwilliams.ie