A growth in anti-immigrant sentiment during the past decade is a cause for concern, particularly as it echoes an increase in racial abuse experienced by African and Asian residents. The duration and depth of the recession, bringing high unemployment, accommodation difficulties and reduced welfare benefits, has driven these developments and contributed to a perceived competition for resources between native and migrant workers. These issues should be publicly recognised and confronted, not just by the Government but by civic-minded citizens.
The latest study by the Economic and Social Research Institute shows that twenty per cent of Irish-born people are opposed to immigrants from non-ethnic backrounds coming here, compared to six per cent in 2002. The timescale is long and, more important, the Irelands under scrutiny are quite different. Back then, immigration - which eventually brought in more than half-a-million people - was only getting into its stride. The economy was flourishing, with migrant workers providing necessary knowhow and muscle. Initially, efforts were made to maintain a homogeneous society and to discourage asylum seekers in particular. But as growing prosperity and employment opportunities sucked in foreign workers, employment rules and regulations were changed and official attitudes altered.
In little more than a decade, the workforce was transformed and foreign workers made up seventeen per cent of the total. A working visa requirement, described by Mary Robinson as a form of “bonded servitude”, was abandoned. English classes for immigrants were introduced and funding was provided to facilitate their integration. Mary McAleese encouraged natives to think of the “new Irish” in terms of “us”, rather than “them”. This Government contributed to the integration process by introducing certificates of naturalisation and special citizenship ceremonies. As a public celebration, the ceremonies welcomed immigrants into the Irish family and offered them equal rights and opportunities.
Problems still remain, particularly where asylum seekers are concerned. An earlier ESRI survey found that, when the recession hit in 2008, the incidence of job losses amongst immigrants was nearly three times that of Irish-born workers. Since then, unemployment percentages within the workforce have changed. The most striking development is that unemployment amongst United Kingdom nationals is almost as high as amongst Africans and is twice that experienced by French and Germans. Irish workers are the least affected.
Racism is insidious and takes many forms. Competition for jobs, accommodation or welfare may trigger it and injure the common good. Everybody has a duty to challenge such attitudes.