Immigration is changing the face, heart of Ireland

Newcomers: To its own surprise, Ireland is becoming multiracial and multicultural.

January 04, 2004|By Walter Ellis | Walter Ellis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If newspaper headlines were the sole arbiter of what is important, then modern Ireland would be known primarily for two reasons: the "Troubles" in the North - the eternal feud between Irish nationalists and the local, pro-British Protestant majority - and the extraordinary growth over the past 10 years of its "Celtic Tiger" economy.

But there is a third development, no less significant. Ireland in the 21st century is becoming multiracial and multicultural.

Membership in the European Union (EU) has been such a runaway success that the Irish Republic is now one of the wealthiest countries in Europe.

Dublin has been transformed. With a population of well over a million, it is dynamic and exciting. The surrounding country is rich and cosseted. Its biggest problems are those associated with success.

North of the Republic's border, where last month's elections resulted in a stalemate with the largest number of votes going to the fundamentalist Democratic Unionist Party, economic advances created by the "peace process" have also begun to encourage immigration - with predictable results.

A Ugandan couple and another African man, as well as two Chinese women, one of them pregnant, were forced from their homes in Belfast last weekend after attacks by "loyalists."

Neither side in Northern Ireland's sectarian struggle has welcomed the new arrivals, who as yet number only in the hundreds and know nothing of Ireland's troubled history.

It has been estimated that about 400,000 of the present population of the Republic were born outside its borders - more than 10 percent of the total - making the country, in the words of The Irish Times, "one of the most immigrating societies in the world."

The biggest numbers of non-EU immigrants are from Asia and Africa, with East Europeans not far behind. In 2001 alone, according to the 2002 census, 50,525 residents of the state had arrived from the outside in the previous 12 months. Figures for illegal arrivals, routing through Britain, would further swell the total.

And the trend is rising.

Other countries, such as the United States, Britain and France, are well accustomed to immigration. The Irish, until now, have generally seen it from the reverse perspective. Ireland was always an emigrant nation. About 40 million Americans claim to have at least partial Irish descent, and a similar pattern exists in Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand

The population of Ireland fell from 8 million to under 4 million in the 19th century. A million or so of the "disappeared" were famine victims; the rest voted with their feet and made new lives for themselves in the wider world.

The irony is that a majority of contemporary Irish citizens are opposed to immigrants. They regard the newcomers as interlopers, out to take their jobs. Discrimination on grounds of color and creed is common.

According to the newly created Equality Authority, there was a 25 percent increase in racist violence in Ireland in the 12 months to May of this year, ranging from murder to being spat at in the streets. There was, at the same time, a "massive" increase in the number of complaints by migrant workers about discrimination.

About 20 percent of the Irish prison population is non-Irish by birth. This year the government rejected an application by Amnesty International to carry out a study of racism in the prison system.

The mayor of Limerick, third-largest city in the Republic, recently urged his fellow citizens to reject a white supremacist group distributing leaflets urging voters to "say no to a black Ireland." Conversely, a leading anti-abortion Catholic campaigner, who opposed the enlargement of the EU to include East European countries, is behind a new anti-immigration party.

Yet despite all of the abuse, immigrant communities continue to grow.

The first black ghettoes, mainly made up of West Africans, are appearing in Dublin. The Chinese and Indian business communities are well-established. East European migrant laborers are a daily phenomenon, often undercutting Irish competitors and boosting the already flourishing trade in drugs and prostitution.

In 10 years, it's likely that the proportion of non-natives will have reached a critical mass of about 20 percent of the population, rendering the change permanent and unstoppable.

Ireland will at that point be a very different place, in which the traditionally "green" culture of rebel songs, Riverdance, hurling and churchgoing gives way to an approximation of the multiculturalism of London and New York.

What will Bord Failte, author of Ireland Guide, make of that? How will the future Ireland sell itself? What will it all mean for the generally anti-British tenor of Irish history? Sinn Fein, in the 1970s, published its vision of a Gaelic, socialist Ireland under the rubric Nua Eire (New Ireland).

These days, as the party of the IRA moves south of the border, bringing its message of Republic and defiance mixed with economic and social pragmatism, it must be wondered what sort of a New Ireland they will actually confront.

Walter Ellis was a correspondent and columnist for The Irish Times, a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and editor of the Sunday Times Review.

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