(The Nationalist, 04 May 2007)


Ireland is changing from an emigrant to an immigrant nation, and it is taking time for us to adjust to it. Where such a large change comes about, one can expect myths and outright falsehoods to make their appearance. Here are some of them:

‘Immigrants will ruin the economy.’

The world’s biggest economy, the USA, is built on immigration. Other rich immigrant nations include Australia, Singapore, and Canada. Germany, with many immigrants, has Europe’s largest economy. And the European countries with the highest proportions of migrant workers, Switzerland and Luxembourg, are also the wealthiest.

An analysis of fifteen European countries over the period 1991-95 found that for every 1% increase in a country’s population through immigration, there was an increase of between 1.25% and 1.5% in gross domestic product. The estimated annual contribution of immigrants to Britain’s economy is £29 billion.

If Ireland is to continue its economic success, we need to invite people here. We need them for our factories, high tech industries and call centres, and also to look after our sick and elderly. The government has estimated that we need 35,000 immigrants a year to keep the economy going.

‘We’ll be swamped.’

The population density of the UK is four times that of Ireland. Furthermore, although 2.1 children per family is necessary to sustain a population, the birth-rate among the Irish-born in Ireland is now only 1.4 per family, one-third below replacement level. The population of the EU is expected to drop by about 11% in the next ten years because of small family size. Immigration is one way of ensuring that our population does not fall. Immigrants tend to be younger, and they keep the demographic balance healthy.

‘They’re all on the dole.’

They’re not. In Ireland, immigrants must have work permits, and they are issued only where vacancies have been advertised and unfilled for forty days. Permits are valid for only one year.

Immigrants mostly do work which Irish people do not want to do. They send money home to their needy families, just as Irish people did when they emigrated in the past. In Britain, immigrants contribute more to government revenue that they take from it. In Australia, immigrants are less likely to be social welfare recipients than the Australian-born. The OECD, in a study of past economic slow-downs, found no relationship between immigration and unemployment.

‘They’re all illegal.’

The great majority of those who come here do so legally. When their work permit expires, the employer may apply for its renewal. That takes time, and, during that time, the worker is technically illegal, but that is because of slow processing of renewal applications.

Ireland was an emigrant nation. For two centuries our biggest export was people. We were often given the worst jobs and accommodation. ‘No Irish need apply’ signs were sometimes displayed in boarding houses and work-places. We were described as ‘without papers’, or, disparagingly, as ‘Wops.’ But we were also given opportunities, and we used them.

Irish emigrants started at the bottom, and worked their way up through education and mutual help. One result is that, today, the number of people living abroad who claim Irish ancestry is 70 million. At present, there are about 1,200,000 Irish-born people living abroad, and 30,000 of those are illegal. Furthermore, emigration still continues at some 20,000 people a year.

Now immigrants to Ireland are trying to do as we did. Will we help them or hinder them?


(Written with much help from Bobby Gilmore SSC.)