July 18, 2006
Today sees the publication of the most important document the government will publish this year. In fact, it is the most important published in the past five years. The preliminary census results give us an accurate snapshot of the state of the nation.
If you want to know what is going on, where, and who is doing what, this is the place to find out. Nothing captures the underlying changes in society like this publication and no other report gives us a better glimpse of what the future might be like.
As was the case in the last census, the most revealing figure will be the number of immigrants. This is where the changes in our new world are most evident. And this is one of the central factors that will determine our politics in the years ahead.
We already know that Ireland takes in more immigrants per head than any other EU country and this includes the UK and Sweden – the only two other EU countries with an open borders policy to the new eastern states of the Union. We are also absorbing more migrants per head than the US. If the US were to match the per capita Irish figures, it would have taken in close to 15 million people in the past two years – twice the population of New York! Compared with other European countries with more restrictive policies, the Irish numbers are startling.
We are now absorbing seven times per head more than France and the Netherlands. Anecdotal evidence suggests that immigration is increasing not decreasing. The impact of foreign workers is being felt in every county and town around the country.
Large areas of north inner city Dublin will soon have immigrant majorities and the CSO population projection for Ireland in 2020 envisages a country where, particularly in Dublin, immigrants replace locals in the city. It forecasts that white Irish people will forsake our city centres for the suburbs. The reason is simple: people – in the main – like to be amongst their own. Similarly, immigrant clusters are also driven by ethnicity, so Chinese live together, Nigerians likewise, Indians, Poles and so on. Trends which have been seen in other countries with a large influx of immigrants in the past 30 years will be repeated here.
The big question is whether this is desirable. How long can this go on? Is it always positive to have more and more migrants in the country? Does the narrow economic view – basically the more workers the merrier – always supersede ideas of ethnicity and ethnic coherence? Do we have more responsibility to a growing Irish underclass, than we do to immigrants? Or do old ideas like the nation state, national solidarity and ethnic coherence make any sense in a globalised world? I am asking these questions not because there are any immediate answers but because I am not hearing any debate on this crucial challenge. The other week, Peter Sutherland – in his capacity as UN special envoy on migration – voiced his concern that we do not have an immigration policy or an integration policy. We have essentially a laissez-faire approach to the EU.
By international standards we have a pretty tough refugee policy and the rest is made up on the hoof, derived mainly by reciprocal arrangements.
Immigration has a terrible habit – if the political elite of a country choose to ignore it – of prompting wild swings in domestic politics. Recent European history in France, Holland and, to a lesser extent, in Denmark and Italy, reveals a deep underlying unease with too many immigrants coming into the country. In the 1960s and 1970s, Germany – driven by German industries’ need for cheap workers – absorbed over two million Turks. Up until very recently, the status of the Turks has been a thorn in the side for successive German governments. In all countries, the ethnic balance seems to be the problem. Despite the liberal rhetoric of most politicians, ordinary people seem to have a tolerance threshold for foreigners and no amount of political correctness can change that.
Equally in Europe, the welfare state plays a significant role in alienating people from immigrants if there is a perception that the immigrants are “scrounging”. In most cases, the evidence is the opposite – immigrants tend to have more get up and go than locals. However, far from being the unifying force that many of its originators hoped, the European welfare state can act as a wedge between locals and immigrants.
Further, ideas like the minimum wage also constitute a problem. The Irish Ferries dispute evidenced this with immigrants happy to work for less than locals because the wages on offer were either much better than they could get at home and certainly much better than a life on the dole in Vilnius.
This dilemma poses a huge problem for parties of the Left because it raises the very real prospect that the enemy of Irish workers’ living standards in the future will not be unscrupulous employers but unwaged foreign workers who are prepared to undercut, live ten to an apartment and work two badly paid jobs. Ultimately, the market rather than the courts will decide this battle.
In contrast, the US model with its minimum welfare provisions, promise of social mobility and general philosophical acceptance (whether accurate or not) that your place in society is a reflection of your own hard work, seems to work better for immigrants.
America is about immigration, whereas European countries are, without exception, set up on the basis of ethnic exclusivity. So Denmark is the place where Danish people live. That is why historically it exists.
There are myths and language, shared histories and animosities, cultural dividing lines and a variety of other factors which gel European nations together.
These serve – and are supposed to serve – as barriers to foreigners. We ignore these deep sociological/ethnic anchors at our peril as the rise of Jean Marie Le Pen, Pym Fortyn and Georg Haidar attest to.
This is why, when today’s census results reveal the extent of immigration, it would be helpful for our elite to take stock and ask some difficult questions about the shape of a future Ireland. At the moment we have a “sure it’ll be grand” attitude – which has served us well thus far, but history shows that events can move quickly.
When the economy slows down, rest assured the locals will lose their jobs first. The immigrants will be more flexible and in the extreme, some will up and split, leaving the estimated thirty percent of new Irish housing stock rented by foreigners, tenantless.
If we don’t want our political pendulum to swing in an ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant direction when the economy slows down, we would be wise to examine today’s census closely and ask a few fundamental questions about the future of this place and how best to manage it.