We need to build on Ireland’s migration success story
Influx of skills has improved competitiveness and allowed economy to grow more rapidly
People queuing at the National Immigration Bureau visa office in Dublin. Immigration continues to play an important role in expanding the growth potential of the economy. Photograph: David Sleator
Irish society in the 1950s was very homogeneous. Most of the population came from a very similar background, had a relatively low level of education and little experience of life outside Ireland. This was reflected in the poor economic performance which, in turn, encouraged ambitious young people to emigrate. For more than a century, a high proportion of the young population had emigrated, never to return.
While the economy turned around in the 1960s, investment in education increased and emigration declined, Ireland still suffered from an outflow of talent affecting many areas of business and the public service. However, from 1970, some of the emigrants of the 1950s returned, bringing with them new skills and experience.
This began a transformation in both the economy and wider society. People who had worked in successful businesses abroad, and found intellectual challenges there, brought home new skills and drive.
The 1980s recession saw a return to emigration, peaking in 1989. Many of those who left were the best educated of the young population. Fortunately, with the recovery of the 1990s, most of these emigrants proved to be homing pigeons, returning to Ireland. By 1996, almost 30 per cent of graduates aged over 35 were returned emigrants.
Recent research by the ESRI shows that, controlling for factors such as qualifications, returned emigrants earn about 10 per cent more than those who never emigrated. This reflects the fact that, through their diversity of experience, they have played a very important role in building a vibrant economy.
However, even with the return of many emigrants, the continued growth of the economy in the late 1990s saw a growing shortage of well-educated labour. The skills gap was filled by substantial inward migration, not only from the European Union, but increasingly from other countries.
Ireland’s immigration experience has been rather different from other countries. From the beginning, most of those coming to Ireland had a high level of education and, until Ireland’s graduate numbers began to rise, immigrants were much better educated than the Irish population.
Research shows that this influx of skills improved our competitiveness by putting downward pressure on wage rates for the best paid, and allowed the economy to grow more rapidly, helping to solve the unemployment problem.
The returning emigrants and new immigrants also brought greater variety in lifestyle. The dominance of the pub has been replaced by a growing restaurant and coffee culture. Experience shows that cities which are diverse, such as London, Paris, San Francisco and New York, are also successful. Demographic change has helped make Irish cities, while smaller in scale, more diverse and vibrant.
Today’s immigrants continue to be well-educated, though the educational profile of the young Irish population has now caught up. Even the poorest-educated immigrants – on average those from the UK, the EU 13, and Africa – have generally completed second level. A good majority of immigrants from other EU countries have a third-level education, while more than 80 per cent of today’s immigrants from France, Spain and India are graduates.
Thus immigration continues to play an important role in expanding the growth potential of the economy. As in the late 1990s, this influx of talent helps raise the standard of living for everyone in Ireland.
Ireland has never had a formal immigration policy, but the outcome of the unplanned development has, to date, been favourable. Freedom of movement within the EU has provided a vital safety valve and the result has been an influx of people who have made a very valuable contribution to the economy and the wider society.
Ireland has so far avoided the populist anti-immigrant rhetoric that is a feature of politics in Britain, the US, and much of central Europe. It helps that every Irish family has its own migration story. Our citizenship ceremonies have been a success story.
However, we can’t take successful immigration and integration for granted.
Ireland has a duty to participate in an EU solution for the refugee problem, welcoming a share of those who are stranded in southern Europe. Those who come here legitimately must be assured they can make a life here, and that no Windrush-style deportations lie ahead.
Immigrants’ right to work should not be tied to a particular employer, so they can work where they are most productive, and avoid possible exploitation.
Learning from other countries, we should be careful about such a scale of unskilled immigration as would undermine wages and job opportunities in disadvantaged communities or feed social alienation. Immigration has been positive for Ireland, it is important that it stays that way.