Immigrants begin to make their political mark


New voting patterns could end years of entrenched political affiliation, writes Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

POLITICAL PARTY strategists must look covetously at Ireland’s immigrants.

In an electoral system in which candidates often find themselves separated by a few dozen votes, and where party affiliation can be remarkably firm, it doesn’t take a spreadsheet to conclude that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of potential new voters, unencumbered by family allegiances or Irish historical memory, could upset long- standing voting patterns.

Parties here though have only recently begun to reckon seriously with the prospect. According to a paper written by researchers at UCD before the last local elections, in 2004, none of the parties could identify any specific measures aimed at encouraging members of ethnic minority groups to join.

“Senior officials from a number of parties remarked in telephone conversations that they had never given the issue of immigrant participation in politics any thought,” wrote Neltah Chadamoyo, Bryan Fanning and Fidèle Mutwarasibo. Just six immigrant candidates were in the running that year, and all were Independents.

When Dr Fanning and others reviewed the situation before the general election in 2007, they found that little had changed, although the indifference this time was partly pragmatic in that the franchise in general elections is mostly restricted to citizens. At the time, however, party officials suggested to the researchers that 2009 could be a tipping point.

They may have been right.

This year, more than 40 foreign candidates from some 13 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the US are standing, 30 of whom were selected by the main parties (only Sinn Féin has none).

Keen to advertise their cosmopolitan credentials and woo new members, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael employ full-time Polish staff members to translate webpages and election literature, maintain contact with immigrant communities and help candidates speak to the new audience.

The Labour Party prints documents in Polish, Lithuanian and Chinese, provides a translation tool on its website and organises workshops with immigrant groups, while the Green Party boasts of having the highest proportion of immigrant candidates of any party.

There may be a long way to go, and parties’ efforts may be a little amateurish (some estimate their immigrant membership by counting the foreign-sounding names in their databases, for example), but the shift in the parties’ stance in recent years has been dramatic.

Viola Di Bucchianico from Poland, Fianna Fáil’s full-time integration officer since 2007, has been supporting the party’s immigrant candidates in drafting policy and familiarising themselves with the system, as well as helping local cumainn to make contact with minority groups.

“Many local cumainn wanted to get involved with the immigrants living in their area, so they asked me to translate a welcoming message in Polish and they distributed them after Polish Mass or in the Polish shops,” she says.

Of course the phrase “immigrant community” suggests a cohesion that doesn’t always exist. Di Bucchianico points out that the parties have to learn to tailor the message to different groups. “If I talk to Polish people, they don’t worry about things like family reunification or legal status, but if I speak to members of the African community, you have to speak in a different way and keep in mind that people have very different issues.”

Kirsi Hanafin, Labour’s women and equality officer, says the party has found that that agenda evolves quite quickly, with a common concern about issues such as residence and housing eventually giving way to mainstream preoccupations.

“Once those things are sorted, they become more interested in mainstream issues such as health, education or public transport . . . It’s like being a woman. You bring in a perspective.”

Canvassing advice prepared by the Labour Party, cited by Dr Fanning et al in their recent report, reminds party workers: “Do not assume anything. You may meet an Arabic-speaking woman with broken English who is, in fact, an Irish citizen. She may vote, yet her Irish neighbour might not. You may meet a Polish man who may end up settling down in Ireland and becoming a party activist. Think of every person as a potential voter, activist or supporter.”

Rafal Jaros, a Pole who has been working as a full-time project officer with Fine Gael since January 2008, notes that some of the first people to ask for his help within the party were younger Irish candidates. Many of them knew immigrants socially and were the first to realise the need to target them as voters.

He has also noticed a keen appreciation among politicians of the need to speak with new communities directly. “I think they’re more aware than they were,” he says.

One of his biggest challenges is explaining to newcomers how the Irish system works. A point raised by both Di Bucchianico and Jaros, for example, is that Irish-style campaigning comes as a surprise to many new arrivals.

Despite recent strides, however, many argue that much needs to be done if immigrants are to be fully included in the political process.

The practice of requiring people to visit a Garda station to be added to the supplemental voter register has been criticised by advocacy groups, who say foreigners are often loathe to deal with the Garda. Notwithstanding the efforts of Dublin City Council and groups such as Forum Polonia, which have run voter registration campaigns, many complain that there was insufficient information given to immigrants about the register.

Emilia Marchelewska of Forum Polonia says parties would also do well to think of immigrants as intellectual contributors rather than just voters.

“There are people from all over the world living now in Ireland and they can see things from a different perspective. They could suggest implementing in Ireland solutions that work well in their countries.”

It is too early to predict whether a newly enfranchised immigrant population will lead to any major shifts in the party system. Viola Di Bucchianico believes the Fianna Fáil-led Government’s decision to open the labour market to workers from the east in 2004 will stand to the party when it comes to seeking immigrant votes.

In Rafal Jaros’s view, Fine Gael benefits from its membership of the European People’s Party, while Kirsi Hanafin of Labour argues that few outsiders will see much difference between the two largest parties but will instantly recognise the values of those parties with established brands – Labour and the Greens.

It is striking how many immigrant candidates found their party by shopping around or by way of a friend’s introduction. Ultimately, the rather prosaic truth may be that immigrants will decide how to cast their vote for just the same jumble of reasons as everyone else.

Irish politics: a Polish phrasebook

We are where we are.

Jestesmy, gdzie jestesmy.

I have a deep passion for pot- hole-related issues.

Mam glebokie zainteresowanie dla problemów zwiazanych z dziurami w drogach.

Poles before politics.

Polacy przed polityka.

This is a damning indictment/ appalling vista.

To jest potepiajace oskarzenie/ przerazajaca perspektywa.

We cannot let this country go backwards, going forward.

Nie mozemy pozwolic, aby ten kraj sie cofnal, idac naprzód.

The money was just resting in my account .

Pieniadze tylko spoczywaly na moim koncie.

I’m glad you asked me that question, but if I could just return to an earlier point.

Ciesze sie ze Pan mnie o to zapytal, ale czy móglbym powrócic do wczesniejszego punktu.

Translated by Piotr Senator and Emilia Marchelewska