Monday 14 October 2019

Donal Lynch: 'Drown this drumbeat with facts on immigration'

We should remember how much immigrants have contributed to our economy, writes Donal Lynch

'Migration has been the defining issue of our time. From Brexit to Trump to the rise of the AfD in Germany, concerns about migration, have shaped the international political landscape' (stock photo)
'Migration has been the defining issue of our time. From Brexit to Trump to the rise of the AfD in Germany, concerns about migration, have shaped the international political landscape' (stock photo)

A new and arresting piece of street art was completed in Cork this week: a migrant woman, four storeys tall, rests in a body of water holding in her hands a bowl of native flowers.

She overlooks the city's old walls and represents, according to the artist who painted her, Fintan Magee, the long history of migration in and out of Cork. She might also be a rejoinder to the controversial Cork TD Michael Collins, who last week asked on local radio: "How are we talking about bringing so many thousand people maybe into this country when we haven't looked after our own people? Why are our own people hungry in the street? Look after our own people first and, then, when that issue is sorted, let's start looking at people from across the world."

Collins, who bears the burden of being named after a famous patriot, denied his views were racist, saying: "We're losing our culture here."

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His comments sparked outrage, as did his defence of Galway Independent TD Noel Grealish, who reportedly said that African immigrants were "sponging off the system". Both men were derided by the fringes of the political mainstream. But the Government has long been wary of sentiments like theirs.

This wariness is why we took far less than our fair share of migrants during the crisis of 2017. It's also why Ireland, unlike other countries, refuses to grant an amnesty to asylum seekers who are already in the system, condemning them instead to a purgatory of red tape in Direct Provision.

An official at the Department of Justice told the Sunday Independent an amnesty would make more fiscal sense, but it would be fraught with political danger. They take sentiments like those of Grealish and Collins seriously. With good reason. It seems strange that Ireland, almost uniquely in Europe, has gotten through the past decade without witnessing a notable rise in anti-immigrant politicians.

Migration has been the defining issue of our time. From Brexit to Trump to the rise of the AfD in Germany, concerns about migration, have shaped the international political landscape. They have bubbled beneath the political mainstream here, too. An ERSI report last year found that Irish attitudes to immigrants worsened during the recession and are now significantly worse than the European average. Yet rare has been the politician prepared to make hay out of this. That might be about to change. Part of the problem is that phrases like "looking after our own" or "losing our culture" gain easy currency. They have the intuitive simplicity of "make America great again".

As we see from the rolling health and housing scandals, Ireland doesn't look after her own and the culture of rural Ireland, which these TDs represent, is being eroded; farmers are in crisis, local newspapers are folding every few months, post offices and Garda stations continue to close. The temptation to draw a link between this and immigration is evident.

The lesson of Britain, Germany and America is that calling politicians who want sustainable immigration "racist" - as happened to both Grealish and Collins last week - doesn't necessarily work. We are all, as the famous Avenue B song went, "a little bit racist" and using such a loaded term tends to shut down debate. Sustainability is the watchword for the economy, Grealish's defenders hinted, so who in their right mind could argue with a conversation about sustainable immigration?

What's needed instead is to take the heat out of these political arguments and do to it with aphorisms as simple, intuitive and populist as the ones they use.

"We won't solve the housing crisis without immigrants" might be one such phrase. Foreign workers have driven our economic recovery in this country and will continue to do so.

An ESRI report late last year stated that any chance the Government has of getting close to the requirement of 30,000 homes a year to meet demand will depend on attracting even more foreign labourers to our shores.

"We wouldn't have a health service without migrants" might be another response to the "looking after our own" rhetoric. At a time when Ireland's health service is losing so many indigenous workers to better-paid positions overseas, our reliance on migrant workers has never been more important.

A study published last year by University College London showed migrants generally constituted a "substantial proportion" of the healthcare workforce in many high-income countries. It's not just healthcare. As the Irish jobs market has closed in on full employment, an increasing number of jobs of all types are being filled by migrants. The evidence shows that the vast majority of those arriving here are at work.

The Central Bank/Department of Finance calculates that since the third quarter of 2015, the average annual growth rate of employment among non-Irish nationals here has risen by 7pc, compared to 3pc for Irish nationals.

Certain sectors are more heavily reliant than others; civil engineering, software, IT, and hospitality all employ high proportions of migrants.

And while we look after our own, migrants look after themselves; the UCL study showed that fear of deportation meant migrants often forego seeking healthcare or assistance.

Trumpeting the positive effects of immigration didn't stop Brexit or Trump, and it alone might not stop our own anti-immigrant politicians.

Michael Collins presents immigrants as a menace to Irish culture. This is a more slippery argument, one which gained huge traction in other countries, but overlooks the vanity we have about things we consider Irish.

A black US comedian watching a hurling match went viral this year. The average Irish person takes glee in the sight of an Iraqi playing hurling, or a Polish waiter dropping in a bit of native slang or an African mastering the bodhran. If we remind ourselves that these people are likely to be working hard, paying taxes and keeping Ireland Inc ticking over, we'll drown out the anti-immigrant drumbeat.

Sunday Independent

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