Ireland’s Openness Questioned: Anti-Immigration Violence Rattles a Nation…

Last Thursday morning I sat down to write a blog in which I was aiming to argue that Ireland (the Republic) had been hugely successful in integrating a large number of immigrants over the past 20-25 years, and that this tolerant, multicultural – and economically dynamic – society was one which open-minded Unionists should not be afraid of, and might even (in the fullness of time) consider joining. But early that afternoon a man with a knife attacked and stabbed a group of small children leaving a primary school in Parnell Square in central Dublin, badly wounding a five year-old-girl, and injuring three other people, including two children. It was later revealed that he was an Algerian, a naturalised Irish citizen.

That evening, following several hours of fearmongering by far right extremists on social media, a full-scale riot broke out after groups of people attacked the Garda Siochana in O’Connell Street and Cathal Brugha Street with fireworks, bottles and other projectiles, burned two buses and a tram, and looted shops and hotels in O’Connell Street and surrounding areas. “Seven o’clock, be in town. Everyone bally up, tool up. And any fucking gypo, foreigner, anyone, just kill them. Just fucking kill them. Let’s get this on the news, let’s show the fucking media that we’re not a pushover, that no more foreigners are allowed into this poxy country,” said one message on Telegram.

Much of the foreign media, caught by surprise like everyone else by these events, asked whether this could be the beginning of the end of Ireland’s remarkable image of openness to immigration. The Guardian‘s Ireland correspondent, Rory Carroll, wrote: “Among the fumes and shouts and sirens blazed an uncomfortable truth. The Ireland that for so long had seemed to buck Europe’s anti-immigrant trend and offer a ‘thousand welcomes’ to the foreigners who reshaped its economy, society and demography – the Ireland that seemed immune to xenophobia and demagoguery and backlash – was not so different after all.”1

My half-written blog last week had pointed to 2022 census figures showing that the number of Irish residents born outside the country was now 20% of the population; the equivalent figure in that great melting pot of an immigrant nation, the USA, is 14%. As of last year, over a million people born elsewhere had made their homes in Ireland. Over three quarters of a million people living in Ireland speak a language other than English or Irish in their homes. Living in peace and relative harmony among us were nearly 100,000 people from the Indian sub-continent, 94,000 people from Poland, 42,000 from Romania and 40,000 from Brazil [one can now add over 91,000 Ukrainians], among many others. Three of the heroic people who intervened to disarm the Algerian madman and tend to the injured were a Brazilian motorcycle delivery driver, a Filipino nurse and a teenaged French restaurant worker.

I quoted Fintan O’Toole voicing slightly surprised approval at the census figures: “The settling of such a large influx of people is a great achievement for Irish society. It has been done, mostly, at a low level, in communities and workplaces, in schools and churches, sports clubs and voluntary organisations…Maybe part of the reason society as a whole has behaved so decently is that we are still a migratory people ourselves…The Irish have had a very long training in understanding migrants as human beings in search of a better life. We are those humans.”2

And, of course, Ireland is a big economic success story. That Thursday morning the latest Central Statistics Office data showed that the Irish jobs market continued to surge ahead over the past year. Immigrants played a vital role in this success, filling just over half the 100,000 jobs created. And Irish governments generally can point to dramatic successes in recent years: in the 50 years of EU membership, life expectancy has risen from 71 to 81.5 years; incomes per head have increased fourfold, and the number of people at work has grown from just over one million to more than 2.5 million.

However, amid this new abundance, the government is making public goods (housing, healthcare, transport) seem scarce, leading to widespread dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. A struggle for scarce resources is not, to put it mildly, the best environment for social harmony. Many young people in poor working class areas, like Dublin’s north inner city, are untrained, bored and hopeless: in the words of one youth worker interviewed on RTE, these are “communities left to rot,” with young men looking out from their city flat complexes and seeing “lots of people going places – but they’re going nowhere.”

Unemployment may be at a record low of just over 4%, but many of these jobs are precarious and poorly paid. The housing crisis remains a running sore. There seems to be little official urgency in Dublin to think about what large-scale immigration means for this, the most burning single issue facing the government. Homelessness is at record levels. Government housing plans are based on the expectation of net migration of 220,000 this decade. Three years in and that figure has already been surpassed.

Such instability, topped by last week’s momentary mayhem, is grist to the mill of populist parties. Here in Ireland – thank God – we have no significant far right parties. But we have have Sinn Fein on the left, and like so many of the government’s woes, last Thursday’s events will only benefit them. In countries like the Netherlands – witness the surprise election victory of the far right Freedom Party last week – Italy, Germany, France and Spain, it is the anti-immigrant far right which is benefitting. We are living in frightening times in long peaceful, long stable, long social democratic Western Europe.

As that voice of sanity, Irish Times columnist Cliff Taylor, wrote over the weekend: “There is a sense that younger people have been left behind and the middle ground has not benefited in a world where a lot of the big wins go to corporate profits and the rich. In Ireland young people can get a job, but unless it is in one of the high pay sectors, they will struggle to buy a house or afford to rent. Recent figures from the CSO show that household living standards were 12% higher in 2022 than in 2016, after allowing for inflation. This is a significant rise, but interestingly the vast bulk of the gain was due to households, on average, having more people at work. The living standards of an individual worker rose only slightly, hit by the recent surge in inflation.”

However, Taylor finishes with a warning: “One piece of perspective is needed: Ireland has profited and been shaped by its openness. Growth and economic progress have been driven by trade. And one in four of those at work in Ireland is now a national from another country, according to this week’s figures, without whom the economy and our public services would collapse and we would be a much poorer country. In every sense of the word.”3

P.S. On a separate note, I am glad to see issues like Irish unity, national identity and relations with Britain (and England) being publicly debated these days. However, the standard of debate is often low. I was at two such events in the past month. Last week I attended a panel discussion in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin entitled ‘You can be anything in Ireland now, as long as it’s not English’. I looked forward to a sharp, insightful exchange on anti-Englishness in Ireland. But what was offered was poor stuff. One long-winded English academic (at an Irish university) was so concerned to be politically correct that he confused the audience by using the phrase ‘the North’ to mean two different things: Northern Ireland (perish the thought that he should use its internationally-recognised proper name) and the north of England (where he was from). An Irish academic had never noticed that the Union flag was unique among flags of the world in almost never appearing in public places in the Republic of Ireland. The young chairman, having heard the British ambassador introduce himself as a Scotsman (and later as a working class Catholic Scot), asked him ‘Are you English?’

Last month I was at a Shared Island dialogue event in the Abbey Theatre on ‘accommodating national identities.’ There was a thoughtful opening address from the Tánaiste, Micheál Martin. After that it went downhill. There were academics who failed to address the central issue of how people with two clashing national identities on this island can learn to share it in peace and mutual understanding; token Southern Protestants (I suppose I count as one of those now!), one of them Irish-speaking; a London-Irish playwright and a Church of Ireland minister who had little or nothing to say about the deeply problematic topic of the debate . Apart from nice John Kyle, the former Belfast city councillor, strong unionist voices, as usual, were notable by their absence, although the head of the Orange Order, Rev. Mervyn Gibson, was in the audience. Another missed opportunity.

‘Remember who we are: race, riots and the end of the ‘Irish Welcome’, Guardian, 26 November

‘In Ireland we barely talk about immigration. It’s easy to see why’, Irish Times, 14 November

3 ‘Ireland would be a much poorer country without immigration’, Irish Times, 25 November

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