In 2016 Uruemu Adejinmi got in touch with a local Longford general election candidate on Facebook to discuss his policy proposals. Adejinmi had never been involved in politics, but since moving to Ireland in 2003 had developed a keen interest in how the country was run.
“He said he wanted to meet other Africans, and I rallied them up but unfortunately he didn’t get elected. Then my neighbour approached me, and said I think you would be a good addition to our party. I had a casual interest in politics, I wasn’t affiliated to any party at the time, so it was easy for me to get involved with Fianna Fáil. ”
Last year Adejinmi took part in the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s migrant-councillor integration scheme, and spent three months learning about the Irish political system through her mentor’s day-to-day activities.
“Not only did I get interested in politics, I also observed that all councillors were Irish. Obviously no one can tell your story better than yourself, and I felt the councils could do with non-Irish additions to help make decisions for the population. That’s what made me interested in running, to be able to influence these decisions.”
Adejinmi is one of a small group of candidates that come from a migrant background and were not born in Ireland who are running in the May local elections. At time of writing an estimated 29 non-Irish-born candidates are running on May 24th, when 949 local representatives will be elected to county and city councils.
There are currently 535,475 non-Irish nationals living in the State, making up 11.6 per cent of the population, according to the 2016 census. Poles are the largest cohort with 122,515 living around Ireland, followed by 103,113 UK nationals and 36,552 Lithuanians.
In 2009, more than 40 immigrant candidates stood for local elections but only one was successful – Rotimi Adebari in Portlaoise. In 2014 just two of the 31 of the “new Irish” candidates who contested the city and council local elections secured seats – Elena Secas for Labour in Limerick City East and Edmond Lukusa for Sinn Féin in Mulhuddart.
Secas, who is from Moldova and moved to Ireland in 2001, is running again this year. The Labour councillor enjoyed representing Limerick, but admits the demands of the position are challenging when combined with a full-time job and caring for small children.
“One of the main challenges was finding a way to balance my work as a councillor with my children, my family and my job. It’s not easy juggling all that and finding a healthy balance.
Over the past five years Secas has become acutely aware of the lack of women in Irish politics.
“Only eight out of the 40 councillors in Limerick are women. I think quotas for women candidates make a big difference in increasing political participation. We should also look at reforming the hours so women elected representatives can reach that healthy balance between work and family.”
Like Adejinmi, Secas would like to see more diversity in Irish politics, but has noticed a lack of interest from within the migrant community.
“We need to establish why people coming from migrant backgrounds do not participate in politics. Some people don’t know how to do it. It’s not because they don’t want to. It would be nice to have more accents around the chambers and the country.”
Sandra Ruíz, who moved to Ireland from Spain 10 years ago and is running as a Social Democrat candidate in Tallaght Central, thinks the lack of diverse role models in Irish politics discourages people with a migrant background from getting involved.
“Especially the younger generations, if they look at people and don’t see someone who looks or sounds like them, someone who makes them feel connected, how will they feel they can achieve their futures?”
Ruíz says migrants in Ireland are faced with additional barriers when trying to rise professionally.
“Even though it’s a very welcoming country and people are happy to have you, when it comes to accessing certain positions and raising your career there’s a very clear glass ceiling. Migrant people are coming here, paying their taxes and raising their kids. We’re contributing to the economy and society, but we feel stuck in limbo. You’re making your life here but you still don’t feel like you belong.”
Dr Lekha Menon Margassery, an academic from the Indian state of Kerala running as an Independent in Cork city, says many people with a migrant background still do not realise they are eligible to participate in the May election. She is focused on educating people about their voting rights before the May 7th deadline for the supplement to the register of electors.
“There are rumours going around that only people with a critical skills visa can register to vote. Campaigning is secondary for now; I want people to know that they have the right to vote. That awareness needs to be created among the public.”
Like Secas, she mentions the dearth of women in Irish politics.
“There are only 35 TDs out of 158 all over Ireland who are female. I think that is changing, the public is starting to support female voices, but the other major thing is there’s no family support.
“Diversity in politics is also lacking here. It’s like people saying Indian food is too spicy at the start but then loving it. Inclusion should be encouraged.”
“I see it first hand from my canvassing; so many people from non-Irish backgrounds think they’re not allowed to vote. So I’ve printed sheets of paper saying they are entitled to vote.”
Nicoullaud believes many non-Irish born residents fear there could be negative public reaction if they become involved in politics. “We think ‘I’m a foreigner, I shouldn’t run’. But we bring another point of view, and can put ourselves in the shoes of other minority groups. We have a lot to contribute.”
John Uwhumiakpor, a People Before Profit candidate in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, who spent time in direct provision when he first arrived in Ireland, says politicians are failing to reflect the diversity of the Irish population in policy-making.
“The acceptance of diversity is not felt in practice. If they welcome everyone with an open heart the society could create that level playing field that would give everyone the confidence to participate in politics.
“I’ve been in Balbriggan for nearly 13 years and I’ve seen acceptance. It’s given me the confidence to stand. But if that is not replicated in the country as whole people will not have the confidence to come out and there will be fear about what to expect. [The recent mass shooting] in New Zealand, when people do not come together in a diverse community, this can happen. There should be honest and real discussions around integration.”
Baby Pereppadan, who has lived in Ireland with his family since 2001 and is running as the Fine Gael candidate in Dublin South West Tallaght, is optimistic about this year’s outcome among non-Irish candidates, and believes between 10-15 will win seats.
“In 2024 there should be even more, more than 100 people will run then. In my community I am the only Keralite running, but definitely more people will come forward with this election.”
Pippa Woolnough from the Immigrant Council of Ireland says the small number of non-Irish-born candidates is indicative of the failure by political parties to diversify their membership and encourage participation from new arrivals to our shores.
The number of non-Irish born candidates in the 2014 local election was “insignificant and disproportionate in terms of the Irish population”, says Woolnough, who is not expecting to see a big shift in numbers in 2019.
“What we need now is for the momentum to actually build up. One of the really important things about political involvement is seeing people who look and sound like you. It makes you realise you belong. But we’re not seeing that representation in Ireland.”
Woolnough says political parties should be collecting data on the ethnicity of their members, despite concerns around GDPR. “If you’re not collecting data it’s very difficult to devise politics and approaches that will increase diversification.”
All political parties contacted for this article said they do not collect ethnicity data. However, a spokeswoman for Fine Gael said the party estimates it has 650 members from “new communities” and is updating its database to include an “ethnicity identifier”.
Asked what efforts were being made to mobilise migrant voter participation in the upcoming elections, all parties said they had carried out voter registration drives.
The Green Party and Social Democrats underlined the already diverse background of their party members, and the need to create greater “visibility” of candidates from minority backgrounds. People Before Profit highlighted the need to challenge racism in supporting migrant communities.
Labour, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael all noted their engagement with people from a migrant background with the support of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
Sinn Féin did not respond to a request for comment on the topic.
Along with her policies on education, employment and housing, Adejinmi reiterates the importance of a diverse political network in promoting integration on this island. There is also an onus on people from a migrant background to get involved themselves.
“It’s so important, especially for people who have decided to make Ireland home. You see with Brexit that in a blink of an eye things can go south. If we don’t get involved in local politics how are we going to take our voices nationally? At a certain point you need to come out of your shell.”