Pessimism about future driving anti-immigrant sentiment, ESRI report finds

Migrant integration study finds attitudes toward migrants are more favourable in Republic than in Northern Ireland

Communities that feel they are not listened to, along with those that are pessimistic about their futures or have a narrow set of social ties, are more likely to be hostile to migrants, landmark research published on Monday finds.

The study, from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), compares migrant integration in Northern Ireland (NI) with the Republic, and finds most immigrants are more highly skilled and more likely to be working than the native populations in both jurisdictions.

While the Republic has more than twice as many immigrants, proportionately, as Northern Ireland – 20 per cent of working-age adults in Ireland were born abroad, compared to 9 per cent in the North – attitudes to migrants are “more favourable in Ireland than in Northern Ireland”.

The report was commissioned to inform the Government’s Shared Island initiative, which seeks to ensure the island “is able to meet the challenges of the future”. This “requires enabling migrants, and ethnic minorities more broadly, to fully participate in society”, says the ESRI.


Using 2018 Eurobarometer data, it finds “in both jurisdictions people are more positive towards EU migrants than non-EU migrants”, but attitudes in the North are less favourable to both than they are in the Republic.

When asked about the impact immigration has on society, respondents in Northern Ireland had more negative views. Asked seven questions, including whether immigration brought new ideas, enriched cultural life, increased welfare burden or worsened crime, respondents in the Republic were more than twice as likely to display positive attitudes than those in the North.

A sense of “political efficacy” was significantly higher among respondents in the Republic. “The proportion of people who ‘totally agree’ their voice counts is 11 percentage points higher in Ireland than in Northern Ireland (21 per cent compared to 10 per cent).”

Greater pessimism was found in the North. “The proportion of people in Northern Ireland who think their life will get worse is 5 percentage points higher in NI than in Ireland (13 per cent compared to 8 per cent), while the proportion in [NI] who think their life will get better is 22 percentage points lower than in Ireland (24 per cent compared with 46 per cent).”

The report finds: “People in Northern Ireland appear to have fewer social ties with immigrants... People in Ireland, however, are more likely to have immigrant family members and friends.”

Controlling for these factors, the authors find negative attitudes to immigrants in Northern Ireland are reduced by 93 per cent. “In other words, almost all of the less-positive attitudes that people in Northern Ireland have about immigration can be explained by their lower levels of political efficacy, their less-optimistic outlook regarding their future, and the fewer immigrant friends and family they have.”

Increased “racial profiling” by gardaí of migrants crossing from the North into the Republic since Brexit is creating “fear” among migrants and impacting their ability to participate in society, according to community groups and other stakeholders from both sides of the Border who participated in an online consultation for the report.

They “described how nationality mattered less than your profile – skin colour, language spoken, accent and name – and participants reported many incidents of racial profiling [where] particular groups of people are asked to produce their passports”.

These checks were “more common when crossing from Northern Ireland to Ireland and by the gardaí, especially on buses and on the Belfast-Dublin route”, they said.

This created “fear among migrants about travel across the Border, even if the individual lives near it and crossings may be otherwise a normal part of life”, which impacted on work, attending conferences, accessing education, participation in sporting and social events and accessing services including healthcare and Dublin Airport.

Participants called for data to be gathered on racial profiling, with some saying they did “not see the point in shared island initiatives if participation is confined to only some communities”.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times