May 21, 2006

Immigrants' dynamism and wildcat strikes tell a tale of two economies

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�But no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.

�No man has a right to say to his country: �Thus far shalt thou go, and no further.��

Strolling down Parnell Street last week, in the shadow of the Parnell monument, it�s hard not to reflect on the great man�s epithet. Such sentiments have rarely rung so true as now -130 years after this famous speech in Cork was made. Ireland is certainly marching, but to where and led by whom? Who is trying to fix a boundary?

With those questions in my head, I popped into the bustling Chinese and Polish shops, bars, restaurants and internet cafes that now dominate Parnell Street.

The dynamism here is palpable. Parnell might be surprised, but he would be proud.

Our immigrants are on the march. They are pushing out the boundaries, spurred by the carrot of optimism and the stick of recent bad memories. They realise that they are onto a winner here, and they have no intention of letting this chance go. Here, the future is bright; this is the pulse of the new Ireland.

The notice boards of the internet cafes serve as the traditional Golden Pages for the immigrants and give a great insight into what�s going on: ��Wanna earn �500 a day?�; ��Need a flatmate?�; ��Have you translation problems?�; ��Fancy a secondhand car or computer?�; ��Waiters needed urgently��. All these ads carry 085 prepaid mobile phone numbers, which is the network of choice for new arrivals.

But where are all these hungry, excited people coming from? Don�t wait for the official figures to tell us: the best indicator of the ebb and flow of foreigners into Ireland are the tariffs on the cheap, low-call phone shops that have mushroomed around the city. You can tell where the last planeload of immigrants has come from by the price of the call.

These shops operate in probably the most competitive market in the city. Because many of the immigrants are initially skint when they arrive – and even when they are settled they are extremely price-conscious – they will walk across the city to get a cheaper call home. So no shop can overcharge for long.

Thus, the way to make money here is on volume. This is the Ryanair model of telecoms.

The pricing system is extremely sensitive to volume. If there is a run on calls to Bulgaria, the price of Bulgarian calls will fall, not rise.

Prices change every day and are thrown up on a huge chalkboard, like bookies� odds at a racetrack. The cheaper the destination, the more immigrants there are from that country. So, by checking out these phone prices, we can gauge who is coming into the country and at what speed. This week, a rake of Ukrainians arrived, believe me.

Another great indicator of vibrancy is the planning notices. Every second rickety building on the street has a notice telling you that the basement is about to be converted, the top floor is to be turned into an internet cafe, the backyard will be a restaurant and the grotty off-licence will soon be a bar, with seating for 90 punters.

The bars that already exist are an exotic combination of rundown old Ireland and hi-spec new Hong Kong�s Long Kwai Fung, completed presumably with feng shui considerations. At one bar are trendy, effete Chinese kids, a couple of locals and a few Albanian lads in full eastern European bad-boy mufti – the pristine white Nike tracksuit, chunky bracelets, crew cuts, gold teeth – necking a bottle of Amstel.

The plasma screen blares out gangsta rap as a tiny Mongolian waitress works the room. On the wall behind the Chinese barman, there is a faded, peeling photo of Dublin�s 1995 All-Ireland winning side.

The place is rocking.

This is the New Ireland. It is an optimistic, get-up-and-go world, where anything goes. Psychologically, the place is liberated: if you want it, be not afraid, seize the day, there are no limits. Who will fix the boundary of the march of this nation?

Who will say to this new country, thus far shall you go and no further?

There is another Ireland – a petrified, limited place, where every change is a threat and every innovation is a risk, where jobs are defined by technical agreements, where we are poisoned by our own lack of confidence, where industrial relations are an adolescent exercise in point-scoring and where a few train drivers stopped the nation. What was that all about? Why were thousands of us left stranded?

Were they, with their well-paid jobs, miffed at having to work a bit more flexibly?

Given that both sides are spinning like mad, it is difficult to get a handle on the exact details of the dispute. But one thing is certain: the row was over something small.

This is the atavistic Ireland that will fix the boundary of the march of the nation.

Unlike in Parnell�s time, the Brits are no longer the enemy.

In many ways, with such a conspicuous target, the battle was easier. We are now faced with the enemy within.

This is the enemy that will say: ��Thus far and no further��. Unlike the narrow gauge Margaret Thatcher, who used this term to describe the miners, I am not talking about the train drivers, the trade unionists or any bunch of workers. I am talking about the enemy within our own heads – all of us.

It is the enemy that is against change and sees conspiracies in every challenge.

This enemy within thrives on pessimism, paranoia and fear. It is resentful and disillusioned and it imprisons large sections of the Irish economy. It rears its head in these stupid disputes, and it belittles us all.

One part of Ireland is marching forward and another part is fixing boundaries. One part (in no way exclusive to immigrants, but they serve to capture some of the dynamism) is saying: ��Let�s go for it, the future is bright and, if we roll up our sleeves, there are no frontiers, no limits to what we can achieve.� The other part is saying: ��No further, we have what we hold, we�re not budging.�

This is the battle for modern Ireland and, when we strip back all the cant, this is what next year�s election is all about.

There is a war raging inside our own heads. If we allow the fear and suspicion to dominate the hope and optimism that surges out of the tatty shops on Parnell Street, we will all pay a huge price. The new train is leaving, and the rest of the world won�t wait for us.


  1. CiaranMcG

    The surge of immigrants has injected a welcome vibrancy,
    economically and socially. Yes we should think without
    self-imposed limits. But we,(or certainly I) don’t want to
    have to compete with immigrants in the following sense: many
    of them are very young, carefree, without kids or mortgages.
    They can accommodate, and perhaps desire (as I did say at
    college and immediately after) a high degree of flexibility
    and volatility in their lives. If a job sucks – just leave,
    and sleep on your friends sofa for a few weeks until you
    find work. Or, if you’re really pissed off, go home to
    Latvia. These are not parameters within which the aging
    Irish population wants to have to deal with. We need a
    certain amount of stability. Let’s evolve and adapt yes, but
    at what point does the volatility become undesireable.
    Perhaps for business owners there is no limit: the more
    unfettered competition and flexibility the better. But for
    workers deserve a stake: and why not in terms of better
    pensions, etc. But we’ve seen many companys (including the
    one I work for) loosen their pension commitments. Defined
    Benefit became defined contribution. Don’t get me wrong -
    I’m not a union head and the train driver srike was
    infuriating (and in the long run self defeating, for it
    kills the credibility of real grievances that workers may
    have). I’m saying the the debate needs a more sober analysis.

  2. copernicus

    Where does all your doomsaying about the property market fit
    into the exhortation to incautious optimism, David? Not
    that I disagree with you. I think there are huge
    opportunities for continued prosperity – and thus demand for
    what continues to be scarce housing stock – not just here
    but everywhere.

    BH is wrong about people in the private sector “just having
    to get on with things” however as though the offices and
    factories of Ireland were filled with eager beavers with a
    can-do, how-high do you want me to jump attitude, while the
    public services are filled with begrudging malcontents who
    won’t do a jot of extra work without a round of industrial
    relations negotiations and a wedge of extra cash. The
    private sector has often been the source of industrial
    relations difficulties and there are agreements in place
    about new technology and changes to working conditions.

    I agree with David though. The days when it was ok to think
    like that are days we should put behind us. Let’s face it,
    most changes like the ones the train drivers are giving out
    about are ones that make it easier and safer to do one’s job.

  3. copernicus

    Where does all your doomsaying about the property market fit
    into the exhortation to incautious optimism, David? Not
    that I disagree with you. I think there are huge
    opportunities for continued prosperity – and thus demand for
    what continues to be scarce housing stock – not just here
    but everywhere.

    BH is wrong about people in the private sector “just having
    to get on with things” however as though the offices and
    factories of Ireland were filled with eager beavers with a
    can-do, how-high do you want me to jump attitude, while the
    public services are filled with begrudging malcontents who
    won’t do a jot of extra work without a round of industrial
    relations negotiations and a wedge of extra cash. The
    private sector has often been the source of industrial
    relations difficulties and there are agreements in place
    about new technology and changes to working conditions.

    I agree with David though. The days when it was ok to think
    like that are days we should put behind us. Let’s face it,
    most changes like the ones the train drivers are giving out
    about are ones that make it easier and safer to do one’s job.

  4. laura

    Well put David. Its small voice crying in the wildnerness
    against a sea of xenaophobia and ignorance. I’ve been
    lucky enough to have a lot of immigrant friends and
    colelagues and they put the Irish – espeically Irish men –
    to shame. I’m bemused as the smelly, semi-washed, brain
    dead troglodyte guys I’ve worked with wonder why all the
    ladies prefer the neatly pressed, intelligent French guy
    who doesn’t live on soccer and doesn’t feel a need to binge
    drink 3 nights a week. Moreover I’ve noticed that these
    guys know how to save. One guy arrived in Ireland 4 years
    ago next month. He’s now a wife, two children and a small
    house. Meanwhile the troglodytes are still wondering why
    they only got one pay rise in 4 years (despite the fact
    that they knew they did nothing but browsed the sports
    results and paddypower.com) all day for 4 years. Some
    people are going to be left far far behind . . .

  5. SpinstaSista

    So “The forgein ladys put the fat thigh irish shelias to
    shame also”? Fat thigh “shelia” na gigs are part of
    Ireland’s heritage and something “forgein ladys” and
    gentlemen might like to see when they take a rare day off
    to visit historic sites in Ireland. Then again, there
    might not be any historic sites left if the developers
    have their way.

    Immigration is great from a sheltered, middle-class point
    of view. I agree that it is much more pleasant to have
    your cappucino served by a smiling Chinese or Polish
    graduate than by a surly native who didn’t get to finish
    the Leaving Cert. From the surly native’s point of view
    immigration is an entirely different story. He or she now
    has to compete with better educated people for work and
    will not be kindly disposed towards these people.

    Does anyone remember when our university students used to
    work in shops and restaurants to earn their tuition fees?
    That was in the bad old days before day tuition fees were
    abolished. If these students wanted to stay in Ireland
    after graduation they often had to take similar low-paid
    jobs. If university fees were reintroduced it would be
    interesting to see how young middle-class Ireland would
    react to the vibrant immigrants working in our shops,
    cafes, restaurants and bars.

    If immigration is not properly managed, there will be
    racial tension here in the future, not only between the
    native Irish and the immigrants, but between different
    ethnic groups of immigrants.

  6. Declan

    I think JP is spot on , I am pretty sure that many of
    the “dynamic” immirgrants that you refer to in your article
    have a tenancy to fall outside the tax net. They are more
    than likely here for a short time not a long time.

    The gulf between Ireland and their home nations are vast.
    They have an opportunity to earn a good wage for a short to
    medium period of time and return with substantial savings
    to their reasonably price home country.

    It is no wonder that they have such a large degree of
    optimism! I think I would to in a similar situation.

    On the other hand, people who choose to stay here are faced
    with a mortgage that is similar to two life sentences, over
    priced and pathetic goods and services industry, and
    inefficient civil services/public agenices.

    We are also faced with a pathetic selection of politicians,
    Who can we vote for? the choice is extremely limited.
    Sorry for being pesimistic but this would be my reading of
    the situation!

    To be honest David that article was only beneficial as a
    lesson in telecom’s marketing and nothing else.

  7. Pete

    This article paints with a very broad brush, but it’s
    based on a very old and simple fact – private sector and
    public sector are different.

    In the private sector (where the immigrants work at the
    coalface), people get paid for the value that they add to
    the business. If they feel they’re worth more, they don’t
    refuse to work until they get paid more (that would just
    get them fired), instead they look for another employer
    who will pay them more.

    In the public sector, where the train drivers work, what
    people get paid depends on what they can negotiate, and
    that depends on how essential a service they provide.
    Since they can’t be fired, refusing to work until they get
    paid more is a perfectly rational negotiating tactic.
    Looking for a better-paying job elsewhere is not a
    rational move, since they are mostly already paid (in pay
    and benefits and security)far more than they could
    contribute to a private sector company.

    It’s not about the enemy within, or immigrant dynamism
    versus local fear, it’s just the plain old traditional
    private sector/public sector divide.

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