Sunday 20 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'We don't want politicians to express silently shared view'

But we shouldn't get too triumphant about the lack of racist and xenophobic politics in Ireland, writes Liam Weeks

Unrest: Plans to use the long-closed Connemara Gateway hotel, near Oughterard, Co Galway, for housing asylum seekers led to 700 people attending a meeting in the town. Photo: Ray Ryan
Unrest: Plans to use the long-closed Connemara Gateway hotel, near Oughterard, Co Galway, for housing asylum seekers led to 700 people attending a meeting in the town. Photo: Ray Ryan

Japan will be to the forefront of sporting minds over the next 12 months. The Rugby World Cup kicked off this weekend and Tokyo will host the Olympics next summer.

For those visitors lucky to attend either event, one of their first observations should be the relatively non-cosmopolitan nature of the Japanese population. Fewer than 2pc of the resident population is a 'gaijin', the local term for foreigner or outsider. By contrast, Switzerland, with a population one-16th that of Japan, has almost as many non-natives living within its borders.

The primary reason for the low number of foreigners in Japan is because of its historically cautious approach towards immigration. Fearing a dilution of Japanese culture from external influences, successive governments have maintained restrictions on the numbers permitted to reside and work in the country. They have an even stricter approach to asylum seekers. In 2017, 19,628 applications for asylum were lodged in Japan, but as few as 20 were successful.

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Independent TD Noel Grealish. Photo: Tom Burke
Independent TD Noel Grealish. Photo: Tom Burke

It is only in the last few years that the number of foreign workers in Japan has increased. With the economy stagnating due to an ageing population and low fertility rates, the government has realised that the only way it can boost its labour force is by bringing in more workers from overseas. But it is doing so cautiously. Many such foreigners are not allowed to bring their families or stay beyond five years. "It would be a disaster if we ended up with the same problems as the US and Europe because we don't have a proper immigration policy," said the leader of the opposition Democratic Party.

One reason for the caution is because of fears of a latent level of opposition to an increased immigrant presence in Japanese society. The leader of Japan First, one such group mobilised against immigration, said in an interview with Bloomberg, "Before you let in foreigners, you should deal with Japan's unemployed. We want them to use tax money to do that. Then, we would have Japanese people looking after the elderly. That would be the happiest result for the Japanese and for the foreigners, as well."

With the expression of such sentiment, Japan is following in the path of the rest of the developed world, where anti-immigrant attitudes have been on the rise in recent years. We see it expressed in support for Brexit in the UK, for Donald Trump in the US, for parties such as Alternative for Deutschland in Germany, the National Front in France, and the Lega Nord in Italy.

But there remains no such party in Ireland. At least none making any kind of political impact. The comments about asylum seekers sponging off the Irish State, that a member of our parliament is reported to have said recently, demonstrated that there is some political opposition to immigration. But what is more remarkable is how little support these comments received nationally.

Just one other TD, the Independent Michael Collins from Cork South-West, rowed into the debate to defend Noel Grealish, the source of the original remarks. Beyond that, the political silence has been deafening.

When the current wave of anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe first reared its head in the 1990s, it was easy to explain why it gained little traction on Irish shores. There simply were too few economic immigrants and asylum seekers here to generate a resentment towards their presence.

But, with the onset of the Celtic Tiger, these numbers changed. The number of asylum applications increased over twentyfold between 1995 and 2002, going from 500 to over 11,500. Likewise, the expansion of the EU in 2004 led to a significant rise in the number of economic migrants from central and eastern Europe. The numbers of non-Irish immigrants tripled from 27,000 between 1997 and 2001 to 70,000 between 2002 and 2006.

There were some opposed to these changes, with the Immigration Control Platform formed in 1998. But the two candidates it stood at the 2002 election, Aine Ni Chonaill and Ted Neville, received a combined 665 votes. Neville went on to contest further general elections, but his highest vote was 804, barely more than 1pc of all votes cast in his Cork constituency.

In later years, Neville got involved with Identity Ireland, a party formed in 2015 that wants more vetting of asylum seekers and greater controls on asylum. The party's spokesperson, Peter O'Loughlin, attracted as few as 183 votes at the last Dail election in 2016.

Another party with an anti-immigration platform, the National Party, formed in 2016, didn't even field any candidates at the local and European Parliament elections earlier this year.

So, in spite of the changing make-up of the Irish population, of which one in eight is now foreign-born, expressing negative sentiment towards them has not been a political winner. We should not complacently assume, though, that means we are more welcoming and tolerant as a people. It is true that a recent European-wide study found that Irish people were more likely than the EU average to agree that immigrants enrich national cultural life, have a positive impact on the economy, and bring new ideas.

However, it was still the case that 51pc of Irish voters believed immigrants are a burden on the welfare system, 38pc that they worsen the crime problem in Ireland, and 40pc that they take jobs away from Irish workers.

It is likely that there are many who (silently) agree with the sentiment of Noel Grealish and Michael Collins. Grealish wasn't hounded out of the local meeting in Oughterard where he made his comments. It was reported that they got a large round of applause.

But it is also obvious that we don't want a National Front/Pegida-type party in our parliament preaching about the perils of Islam and multiculturalism. Even though we may share some of the negative attitudes towards immigrants exhibited by our European cousins, we don't share their preference for anti-immigrant politics. Any party or candidate that has stood on this as a primary issue has been doomed to failure.

Yes, there has been the occasional candidate elected who espoused comments such as Fianna Fail's Noel O'Flynn's reference in 2002 to spongers and freeloaders, but immigration has not been a major part of such politicians' platforms.

Some claim that this is a product of our own emigration past, with a sense of empathy for the immigrants in a similar position to Irish people past and present who sought a better life in foreign countries themselves. But the evidence doesn't support this theory. It's not true to say there's no anti-immigrant sentiment in Irish society. It's just that, paradoxically, while some are happy to express such thoughts, it is pretty evident that on a national scale we don't want our politicians or parties doing so.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't get too triumphant about the lack of racist and xenophobic politics in Ireland. Just as the current absence of a party preaching such a message in Japan does not mean its emergence is not possible, so too the conditions for such a party in Ireland are not unfavourable.

Many of the factors that led to the rise of anti-immigrant parties elsewhere are already here. More immigrants; disillusionment with established parties; lower levels of toleration; a conducive voting system. It might just be that all we are lacking is a political opportunist to exploit these factors. Is this what Noel Grealish had in mind?

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics in University College Cork

Sunday Independent

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