Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Politicians losing touch with public opinion on thorny issue of migration

Central question not whether migration is good or bad — core issue is whether we regulate effectively or allow it become a free-for-all

Sooner or later, we in Ireland are going to have a mature national conversation about migration, free from a suffocating anxiety not to fit into glib political characterisations which bear little relation to reality.

When the most recent Census revealed that on the night it was taken up 35 per cent of those enumerated in the county borough of Dublin city were born outside Ireland, nobody can doubt that inward migration is an established Irish reality. Inward migration is as much a fact of life in Ireland as outward migration was in the past and continues to be in the present.

If our mature national conversation does not acknowledge this starting point, it would be delusional and futile. Truth has to be the cornerstone of sensible social and political discussion, even if there are differences to some extent on what is true. By the same token, we must differentiate between wishful thinking and truth; ideologies can distort truth. Politicians can be manipulated by their fear of falling foul of ideologists of whatever hue — left or right — who dominate media debate.

A central truth is that there is a fundamental distinction between economic migration and asylum-seeking. These two phenomena are often blurred — again by ideologists of all hues when it suits them or their arguments. In terms of national policy response, we have to see them differently.


As part of the fundamental basis of the European Union, each member state has accepted the entitlement of EU citizens to migrate within the EU for economic reasons — to engage in economic activity in other member states. That is not an unlimited right; there is no EU absolute entitlement to relocate in pursuit of welfare rights or to reside in other member states as economic non-participants.

EU citizens have the right to travel with their families visa-free to other member states and may remain in Ireland for up to six months, after which their right to remain depends largely on being usefully employed or self-employed. After five years, they are entitled to permanent residence.

Are there pull-factors in our approach which need to be reviewed?

In the case of non-EU migration, very different rules apply. Mostly, you need a visa and cannot remain in Ireland to seek employment or self-employment without a permit. Many non-EU migrants play a vital role in our economy. Granting permission to live and work in Ireland is an important function of government. It must be regulated and administered fairly, having regard to policies and priorities set by democratic processes.

Asylum-seeking is a very different thing. It involves individuals invoking rights established by international conventions to move from one country to another to avoid persecution.

The question that the EU now faces is whether existing practice in relation to asylum-seeking is still sustainable when the process is being used as a means of mass migration for largely economic reasons. The world has changed utterly since historical international conventions for asylum were first promulgated in the mid-20th century. Those conventions should be rethought.

The central question is not whether migration is good or bad — it is a fact of life. The central question is whether we regulate it effectively or allow it to become a kind of free-for-all such as Britain is experiencing or southern EU member states are experiencing in the Mediterranean. The grotesque Rwanda option shows how difficult it has become to control migration posing as asylum-seeking.

A recent letter published here from Martin McDonald drew our attention to aspects of the Irish approach to economic migration posing as asylum-seeking. Are there pull-factors in our approach which need to be reviewed?

In the middle of a housing crisis, it is clear that our State is failing to cope with the number of would-be asylum-seeker migrants claiming our protection. Handing them tents in the middle of winter is not a sustainable response. Offering them €75 per week and telling them to fend for themselves seems an indefensible solution.

There are signs across the EU that voters have had enough of uncontrolled migration posing as asylum-seeking

Politicians need to appreciate that they are losing touch with popular sentiment and losing control of an unsustainable pressure on our physical resources. A few months ago, the phrase “Ireland is full” was derided as crypto-fascist dog whistling. But now, we are struggling very unsuccessfully to cope with the realities of a collective failure at national and EU level to deal with economic migration issues.

Populism will thrive on a widespread perception of failure to confront unsustainability at home and abroad in relation to migration. This issue is not going to disappear. Irresponsible language on these issues is unacceptable; irresponsible failure to confront political realities is equally unacceptable.

There are signs across the EU that voters have had enough of uncontrolled migration posing as asylum-seeking. There is no point blaming men from the developing world for seeking entry to advanced economies and welfare systems if that option is open and offered by people traffickers.

A radical rethink by European democracies is needed now.