We must not treat migrants the way we’ve treated Travellers – Higgins
President gives keynote speech at launch of four-year migrant integration plan in Limerick
President Michael D Higgins: urged Ireland to reflect on its own history of mass migration, including the Great Famine and the Flight of the Wild Geese. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times
Mr Higgins, who is seeking re-election to the Áras, gave a keynote speech at the launch of a four-year migrant integration plan by Limerick City and County Council on Friday.
In a prepared speech, he highlighted how Irish society should make efforts to “understand and accept the complexity of [different] identity” by reflecting on its own history of mass migration, including the Great Famine, the Flight of the Wild Geese and more recent periods.
“We need to be ready to cast our memory back to our own ancestors and relatives, to consider how they were treated on arrival in their new homes,” he said. “Even more, how we would have wished their experience had been when encountering the other.
“In doing so, we should be able to reconsider our own [integration] approaches, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes that were made elsewhere at any time.”
Skilled migrants, he said, have a “value and [a] contribution” to make to Ireland.
Mr Higgins recalled working in a hotel in England in the 1960s, when racism was widespread against the Irish and black communities.
“I was writing my first letter to a newspaper, the London Evening Standard, [after] someone had [said they] wanted to send all the Irish home; and the owner of the hotel where I was working for the summer, said [to me], ‘We would like you not to put the address of the hotel in your correspondence.’”
People have come from afar, and they are making a contribution to Irish life and society
He added: “We’ve made mistakes . . . in the past. I think, particularly, in relation to the Travelling community, where, in fact, we hadn’t, in fact, understood when we had a standard [and] often inflexible housing legislation, which was not capable of taking into account the complexity, of difference, and of needs.
Mr Higgins noted that in the 20 years from 1996 to 2016, Limerick’s population has grown by 18 per cent, partly due to migration.
“Today, people born outside Ireland count for just under 10 per cent of the population of Limerick city and county,” he said. “People have come from afar, and they are making a contribution to Irish life and society.”
Eugene Quinn, national director of the Jesuit Refugee Service Ireland and chairman of the Limerick Integration Working Group, said he was “worried” that “anti-immigrant rhetoric is finding political traction in the US, in Europe, in Poland, Hungary and Austria, and recently, even in a progressive and open state like Sweden. ”
He added: “This is dangerous and it is wrong, and we must fight it.”