Posted tagged ‘xenophobia’

Ireland’s welcome

March 25, 2009

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.