Here to stay? Ireland's migrants prove accession proof

Ten years after Ireland opened its borders to the EU’s expansion, the migrants who have arrived since describe an open and inclusive society where they continue to prosper

Residents of Warsaw celebrate the first official results of the European Union accession referendum in Poland. Photograph: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

So the doomsayers were right, afterall. Ten years after we opened our borders to an enlarged European Union, it's clear we hugely underestimated the number of eastern Europeans that would pour into Ireland.

Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians flowed in at an extraordinary rate, a result of our decision – along with the UK and Sweden – to allow unlimited access to the citizens of the 10 new EU accession states to our labour market.

While the census recorded just 4,000 Polish-born people in 2002, by 2006 it ballooned to 65,000. Four years later, it topped 120,000.

In the process, they transformed small parts of every town of the country into mini-Baltic enclaves. No town was left without a Polski sklep that sold pickles, Polish beer or smoked fish.


But the doomsayers were wrong as well. Ireland absorbed the workers like a sponge. Fears that Polish plumbers and other low-paid workers would steal jobs and price Irish workers out of the market never really materialised.

Ireland managed the influx with little or no political fallout partly because of our low unemployment rates and economic boom. But even when the bottom fell out of the economy, there was no real sense of alarm. Many left, to be sure, but many also stay on and hope for the best.

It was a reminder that in opening its borders, Ireland didn’t just receive a temporary wave of guest-workers; it also received tens of thousands of people with hopes and dreams of carving out a successful life here.

Anna Wolf is one of them. Within weeks of Poland joining the EU, she had hopped on a plane and arrived in Ireland in search of a fresh start.

Money was only part of the reason she came here. It was also an escape from a society still struggling to emerge from the shadow of its communist past.

“Most of us who arrived in Ireland were born between 1980 and 1985, during that transition period between communism and capitalism,” says Wolf, a 20 year old drama student at the time.

“We were promised freedom and a brighter future, but it never really arrived. Many us were just fed up. Ireland offered me, and many others, freedom and a chance to fulfill my ambitions.”

For people such as Aneta Kubas, who arrived in her late 20s, the plan was more functional. She came here to work for three months, save hard, and return home and maybe buy a house in Poland.

Like many, a decade later, she is still here and raising her two children, Kalina who is six and four-year-old Lubomir.

"A lot of us did the same thing," says Kubas, a journalist who is married to a fellow Pole. "Our friends, work and children are here. Now, I'm almost 40. I don't feel like changing their lives. For my children, Ireland is their homeland."

Climbing the career ladder
During early years of this inward migration, we became accustomed to seeing Poles and other eastern Europeans as builders, waitresses, shop assistants or chambermaids. But over the past decade, the profile of the working population has changed as more begin to climb career ladders or set up their own businesses. "I now know Polish lawyers, financial advisors and so on," says Kubas. "There are lots of Polish enterprises too, such as beauty salons, shops, newspapers and schools."

For Wolf, though, the stereotype of a newly arrived Pole working in a low-skilled, low-status job remains.

“I think people are slow to realise that society is changing,” she says. “Many of my Polish friends here are working in banks or the financial sector or in corporations. But my Polish actor friends usually only get roles in Irish dramas playing Polish cleaners or prostitutes.

It was one of the reasons she cofounded Polish Theatre Ireland, a nonprofit organisation which produces plays aimed at providing authentic experiences that resonate with Polish and Irish people.

Latest academic research appears to back up what many are saying anecdotally. Immigrants from accession states are socially mobile relative to other migrants.

Much of this is down to the fact that about 40 per cent of new arrivals had third-level qualifications, a figure similar to the Irish population but unusual for a migrant population.

For middle-class Irish people, the influx from eastern Europe was particularly welcome. Many who struggled to find an available tradesman were suddenly marveling at the work ethic – and comparitively modest charges – of the proverbial "Polish plumber".

But immigration was less welcome for those reliant on low-paying jobs, as greater competition sent hourly rates downwards in areas such as the service sector.

The Irish Ferries dispute, where the company tried to replace 600 workers with eastern Europeans on lower wages, became a lightning rod for wider fears and anxiety among the Irish population. But this was, by and large, an isolated case.

Experts such as John Sweeney of the National Economic and Social Council have pointed out that the influx of migrants didn't impact greatly on Irish workers. All available evidence suggests that displaced Irish workers – at least before the downturn – were able to find work elsewhere.

The influx did, however, dampen wage growth in the years after 2004. But take-home pay in Ireland remained among the highest in Europe.

With high unemployment and real competition for jobs, many might have predicted heightened resentment towards our eastern European neighbours. There’s little sign of it to date. Nor is there any indication of support for right-wing populist parties such as Ukip, which has been whipping up fears about immigration in the UK.

There are lots of reasons why this might be the case, though Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí, a migration expert based at University College Cork, suggests much of our tolerance is down to the fact that we too have emigrants in other countries.

But he warns that discrimination or mistreatment of foreigners can take more subtle forms in areas such as recruitment.

A recent study by the ESRI and the Equality Authority found, for example, that candidates with Irish names were more than twice as likely to be invited to interview for advertised jobs as candidates with identifiably non-Irish names, even though both submitted equivalent CVs.

In addition, says Mac Éinrí, the self-regulating professions and public sector have done very little to open up career pathways for migrants.

Controversy over schooling
Towns such as Balbriggan in north Co Dublin are where communities have faced some of the biggest challenges linked to inward migration.

Its population more than doubled during the boom years. Today, it’s one of the most diverse communities in the country. with migrants accounting for one-third of the population. Half of these are from eastern Europe.

The area found itself in the eye of a storm of controversy about schooling in 2007, when dozens of migrant children were unable to access a local school.

While some claimed it was the result of school enrolment policies and unofficial segregation, others blamed authorities for failing to plan for growth in the area.

Emilia Marchelewska, who is originally from Poland, is a health advocacy officer with Cairde, an integration project for the Balbriggan area. She says that there has been a lot of work since the controversy broke to try to break down barriers and ensure migrants are able to access the same services as Irish people.

“When people have a chance to mix and work together on something you see a big change in attitudes,” she says.

For all the potential negatives, a decade of migration has proved – on balance – to have been positive. The free movement of people was a dream of the founders of the EU. For an institution with a battered reputation, the enlargement project remains a example of what can be achieved.

Wolf, for one, is glad to have benefited. She moved to Kilkenny 10 years ago as a drama student, working in bars and restaurants but dreaming of putting on plays. A decade later, she’s been invited to produce a play at the Watergate Theatre in the city. It feels, she says, oddly appropriate.

“I’m delighted. It’s real progress,” she says. “I feel I have more freedom here. Irish people are very open. I don’t feel barriers. In Poland, there’s lot of tension in society. People are more relaxed here. No one judges you. I’m happy with that.”