Immigrants must share common liberal values - McDowell


Immigrants will need to share the common values of Ireland's liberal democracy if they are to successfully integrate into society, Minister for Justice Michael McDowell said yesterday.

Speaking at a conference on integration, the Minister said Ireland will need to "grasp the nettle" of identifying a common set of values which can be shared by all citizens in an increasingly multicultural society.

He said Ireland should examine how other EU countries are addressing the issue, whether through language and civics training for newcomers, setting certain preconditions for securing citizenship or the issuing of "integration contacts" to foreign nationals.

Mr McDowell said the precise nature of this "common public space" needed to be debated, although he said it will surely include essential values such as obedience to our national laws and equal treatment of men and women in society.

He also said that immigrants needed to be able to attach themselves to society in a way which allowed them to preserve their individual views of how they wish to live their personal lives.

"We need to carefully examine the choices we make because if we journey down the wrong road, it may not be easy to find our way back. We must not be afraid to discuss our differences. We must choose dialogue and be clear about our language. For dialogue is the only way to initiate a process of converting diversity into strength," he said.

Mr McDowell was addressing a conference on integration policy organised by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, in co-operation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He said the conference was the first in a series of consultations, with further seminars planned for later in the year.

At the same conference, the director of integration policy in the Netherlands, Marilyn Haimé, said Ireland could learn from the mistakes of her country's policies. Up to 2001 she said political correctness demanded the acceptance of immigrants, while the country's history of political and religious tolerance was expected to accommodate the religious and cultural diversity that accompanied such migration.

However a downturn in the economy helped place the issue of the failure of the integration of ethnic minorities at the centre of a heated political debate.

She said the Dutch government was now emphasising a new approach in which the concepts of citizenship and social cohesion would be to the fore.

"Citizens are co-owners of the society they live in. This involves rights, but also responsibilities, and a duty to contribute to that society," she said. "We see the attitude of non-commitment to society not as a problem exclusively of immigrants, but as a problem of the whole population."

A special adviser to the Danish government on integration, Mark Bang Kjeldgaard, said Denmark had experienced similar problems and was seeking to promote positive integration in a number of ways. In recent years civic citizenship training and learning about the values and institutions of Danish society had been introduce as part of Danish language training.

It has also set a low level of unemployment benefit for foreign nationals for a period of time, making it more profitable to have a job, he said.