Ireland’s welcome

Last week the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, announced that Ireland was willing to resettle a ‘small number’ of released prisoners from the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay. This immediately drew a warm welcome from both the Obama administration and from Amnesty International. And it should be seen as confirmation that Ireland continues to be a country that is open to migrants and refugees, within the limits of what is reasonably possible.

Of course, I have reason to feel this way. As I have mentioned before, I am myself a migrant. I was born in Germany, and lived there for the first few years of my life; my father’s family, going back a bit into history, had a Polish origin, while my mother’s family was German.  When I was seven years old we moved to Ireland, and I spent a good bit of my childhood and youth in County Westmeath. Back then, we must have been quite an exotic sight. My father was fond of dressing in traditional German clothes, Lederhosen and all, and when I walked down the streets of Mullingar with him so attired I was often amused to watch people’s reactions on seeing him. But he was very good at what we now call ‘networking’, and he fitted in just fine, and all of us were welcomed warmly. I became an Irish citizen myself, now more than 30 years ago.

But back then Ireland was not a multi-cultural country, and it was not until the Celtic Tiger arrived that any significant immigration of people who did not have an Irish origin or Irish roots. When migrants did start to arrive in large numbers, there were fears that Ireland’s tolerance and, generally, lack of racism and xenophobia might come under stress, but apart from generally quite isolated incidents this did not happen. And even now, with economic conditions worsening and unemployment rising, there are still no major signs of hostility to non-nationals.

About three years ago I gave an address at a graduation ceremony in which I suggested that immigration was important for Ireland’s future, both economically and culturally, and that we should be open to migration while, of course, maintaining many of the traditional values of Irish culture. My comments were widely picked up by the media. I did receive one letter in response to my comments, from a writer who denounced me for undermining the traditional culture and who declared that I was ‘wholly evil’ and should ‘go home’. But interestingly this anonymous letter had been stamped in London; in Ireland itself, the only sceptical comments I heard were from one or two people who thought I was unwise to raise the issue in case the discussion brought out some latent xenophobia. It never did.

Interestingly, the signs are that many of those who came to Ireland from other countries in the course of this decade are staying put. It appears that Ireland will stay a multicultural country. I believe that this will help us greatly when we come out of the recession, and when the availability of a willing and cosmopolitan workforce will again be an issue.

Of course we also need to value and keep alive Irish traditions and values; but these will be enhanced in the setting of an outward looking country at ease with its identity and inclusive in its approach.

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6 Comments on “Ireland’s welcome”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    Former inmates of Guantanamo will make us “a willing and cosmopolitan workforce”? Are you having a laugh?

  2. Hm, Mark – no; but of course you knew that’s not what I was saying. No Polish, Chinese, Latvian (etc) immigrant to Ireland is a former inmate of Guantanamo.

  3. ultan Says:

    I disagree. Ireland does not have an immigration policy at all! Most of our immigration is only a fact because it’s an EU requirement. Getting legally into the country otherwise requires a work visa – unfairly owned by the employer, not the immigrant. There is definitely institutional racism here. Look at what happened with that disgraceful racist referendum concerning children born here a few years back.
    I am sure it was not easy then, but today there is a hell of a big difference between coming here as a white anglo-saxon person from Western Europe and a black person from Africa, or as a person from Asia.

    Meanwhile our glorious leader takes the begging bowl to Washington pleading for amnesty for the Irish aliens in the US and more Green Cards to take care of our unskilled yellow-jacketed masses discarded by the great and the good of Cheltenham. Ireland should take as many Gitmo prisoners as possible – maybe them all.

  4. Mark Dowling Says:

    That was an intentional tweak at you, Dr. von P.

    Conflating within a single piece the rather dubious fobbing off of internees on the world by the Bush and now Obama Administrations and the criminal lack of a proper immigration strategy on Ireland’s part was surely mischievous on your part though.

    That said, while I find the US’ determination to avoid the “you break it, you bought it” rule in respect of the internees, the role of Shannon in this matter may mean that in Ireland’s case, it’s only fair that we take some.

  5. ultan Says:

    The passing of a racist referendum is a direct reflection on Irish attitudes. I think any contention there isn’t significant racism against migrants in this country is very naive. You could check with Philip Watt of the NCCRI, but oh the government have abolished that. Even your DCU colleagues argue:

    “there is still a growing problem with racism in Ireland. An increasing number of racist assaults and abuse suffered by those whose skin colour or ethnic appearance marks them out, is clear evidence we do have a problem in Ireland. There is also a consistency in the accounts given by black and Asian Irish people or long-term residents in Ireland from ethnic minorities, that they encounter more abuse now than they ever did in the past. Attitude surveys carried out in Ireland would also suggest that we are not particularly tolerant when compared to other European countries. There is an urgent need for very proactive anti-racist campaigns. ”

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