Numbers of migrants participating in Irish politics ‘woefully low’

Councillor-migrant internship scheme seeks to encourage greater migrant involvement

Irish political parties must work harder to provide opportunities for people with a migrant background to get involved in politics and improve the "woefully low" number of migrant local representatives, the Immigrant Council of Ireland has said.

A report launched on Monday by the Immigrant Council, which tracks the experiences of councillors and migrants paired together through an internship scheme, has warned of low voter participation among migrant communities and a lack of diverse voices in the upcoming local elections.

The report underlines the potential for political participation among migrants, who can both vote in or run for local elections, but warns of a “huge gap” between these rights and the degree to which they are realised. Voter registration rates among people with a migrant background are low with less than half of eligible migrants registered to vote with local authorities, says the Immigrant Council.

“Just 31 candidates from a migrant background ran in 2014 and currently only three out of 949 sitting councillors are from a migrant background,” said council chief executive Brian Killoran ahead of the launch. “As this councillor-migrant internship scheme has shown, the benefits are win-win for all involved – and especially the health of Irish politics.”


First hand

The programme, which ran over four months in 2018, offered participants the chance to experience local politics at first hand, to connect with local government officials and provided a platform to promote diversity among politicians and society at large.

Councillors from Fingal, Longford, Cork city, Wicklow and Louth took part in the placement scheme which saw five interns from around the country partnered with a public representative. Three participants subsequently decided to run in the 2019 local elections.

Cllr Anne Campbell, who was partnered with Adam Muchegwa in Louth, said the programme gave her a “huge, previously unknown, insight into life in the immigration system in this country. Adam brought a wealth of experience as a former civil servant to bear on my work and has guided and helped me.”

Fahmeda Naheed, who is originally from Pakistan and was partnered with Cllr Mick Nugent in Cork City Council, said the scheme gave her a new sense of belonging to Ireland. However, she often felt out of place at council meetings. "I was the only one with coloured skin. They were all looking at me like maybe she forgot the way."

Ms Naheed warns that most migrants feel uncomfortable approaching public representatives for advice and support. “They say ‘we can’t as we are not Irish’. That is a wrong attitude that we have to address.”

Uruemu Adejinmi, who was partnered with Cllr Joe Flaherty in Longford, said the internship made her aware of the lack of migrant voices within the Irish political system. Ms Adejinmi, who is running in the local elections in May, says she is working to educate friends and acquaintances about the Irish political system and hopes to encourage more people from a migrant background to get involved.

“I firmly believe that working in a political setting is critical in integrating migrants in the community,” said Ms Adejinmi. “A councillor from a migrant background would certainly be a great influence at council meetings in my opinion as their presence would be a constant reminder of the diversity of the population and help ensure that their interests are considered in decision making.”

Following the success of the scheme, the Immigrant Council is calling for a national internship programme to be introduced which would see every council in Ireland partnered with at least one participant on an ongoing basis.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast