By Stephen McKinley
DUBLIN — In Beschoff’s fish and chips shop on O’Connell Street in Dublin, staff members ask for your order with Romanian accents. Outside, on the packed sidewalks at rush hour, African faces pass every few paces, many heading toward the Moore Street markets, dubbed “Little Africa” because of the high number of African residents in the area, many of them from Nigeria. Recently, Dublin’s bus service announced that it planned to accommodate the needs of Muslim staff who may wish to pray five times a day. IBM has boasted that it employs 40 different nationalities across the country.
This is 21st century Ireland, and its face is changing rapidly. Suddenly confronted with immigration for the first time in centuries, the “old country” faces new issues in the coming decades.
Statistics alone reveal how dramatic has been the increase of people trying to move to Ireland. In 1992, according to the government’s Central Statistics Office, 39 people sought asylum in Ireland. Eight years later, in 2000, this figure had risen to nearly 11,000, and it continues to mount.
These numbers represent only asylum seekers, who now make up a mere 10 percent of the total number of people entering Ireland from all over the world, many legitimately and highly skilled, and all drawn by the promise of what eluded Ireland until the 1990s: prosperity.
All through the 20th century and before, Irish people had packed what little possessions they may have had and taken flight to other parts of the world. Ireland’s greatest export had always been its own people, a phenomenon that became an essential part of Irish culture.
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“So adieu, my dear father,” goes the old Irish emigrant song, “so adieu, my dear mother, farewell to my sister, farewell to my brother. I am bound for America, my fortune to try, when I think on Bunclody, I’m ready to die.”
In the U.S. and elsewhere, Irish immigrants faced tough futures: racism, typified by the legendary “No Irish need apply” signs, was often their first impression of adopted homelands.
Now the experience has come home — Ireland faces issues of emigration control, racism and, ultimately, what it means to be Irish. In recent years, from the government down, Irish people have grappled with the changes facing Irish society from legitimate immigrants to asylum seekers.
Increased incidents of racism have been recorded, most notoriously the murder of Chinese student Zhao Liu Tao late last year, one of 50,000 Chinese people now resident in the Irish Republic.
Gabriel Okenla, a student from Nigeria, helps run a support center for Dublin’s African population in “Little Africa.” Recently, he described a racist attack he experienced: “They dragged me by my shirt: ‘Hey come here, nigger! What the hell do you want in this country? We don’t want any black people here. What are you looking for? You’re not supposed to be here.’ They started pushing me, kicking me and trying to make some punches into my face.”
In this complicated, changing situation, one fact stands out: Ireland is now a country that is seen as attractive to those from less fortunate parts of the world.
Many commentators have criticized Irish society, the media and the government for not responding to this fact adequately: How should immigration be controlled? And because of the historic experience of its own people having to seek fame and fortune elsewhere in the world, does Ireland have a responsibility to rise to the occasion and fully express that most Irish of traits, generosity to the needy?
“Prosperity is directly connected to the free movement of people,” said Dr. Ronit Lentin of Trinity College, herself Jewish and born in the Middle East but resident in Ireland for more than 30 years. She is well placed to address the immigrant issue in Ireland.
“You can’t have prosperity without the free movement of labor, and I don’t think there is an acknowledgment of this in Ireland,” she said. “Many people don’t accept that Ireland needs immigrants.”
At the other end of the spectrum from Lentin is -ine Nf Chonaill of the Immigration Control Platform, who favors extremely tight controls on immigration, and whose opinions have sometimes attracted cries of racism. On the Internet, even more extreme opinions lurk, with some shadowy groups issuing calls to “keep Ireland white.”
In 2000, a survey carried out by the government found that one in three people thought there were too many minority groups in the country already. The most often expressed sentiment is that Ireland is a “soft touch” for economic migrants. In 2000, in Kerry, councilor Michael Healy-R’, the son of Independent TD Jackie Healy-R’, objected to plans to house 70 asylum seekers in Kenmare, saying the move would turn it into another “Harlem.”
In Kildare, residents were opposed to plans to house refugees from Kosovo. In Waterford, there was concern about a “flotel,” or floating residence for asylum seekers being placed in the city’s harbor. In Wexford, locals opposed using the Devereux Hotel for asylum seekers, and similar complaints have been raised in Cork, Kerry, Dublin and Carlow.
Few people would describe the complaints as racist, but it is clear that Irish people are still grappling with the new situation, and many misconceptions exist about asylum seekers, who fall at the bottom of the immigrant pile. Surveys show that many Irish people think, for example, that asylum seekers get government money for luxuries such as cell phones and televisions. In fact, they do not: the few who do qualify for welfare receive small weekly payments based on their needs, and certainly no more than Irish people on welfare, according to an Amnesty International survey.
In Galway, Dennis O’Brien, an advertising sales manager and local community representative, got right to the heart of the matter.
“Ireland has been more prosperous than ever, and we need labor.” He repeated himself for emphasis. “We need labor, but in response to new arrivals, there have been racist attacks, even here in Galway. I think it’s a good thing that Irish society is becoming more diverse. There is a price to pay for prosperity. We cannot do it all on our own.”
O’Brien has helped several Nigerian families in the area to settle in, and has heard of racist incidents over the years.
“It seems selfish to me,” he continued, “that we don’t share what we have.”
Government response to the immigration question has been swift, but has attracted criticism.
In less than a decade, what amounts to a fully fledged Immigration and Naturalization Service has had to be created in Ireland, as well as structures to deal with the racism question.
Ironically, at the time that Zhao Liu Tao was murdered in Dublin, the Garda Racial and Intercultural Unit, established in March 2001, was liaising with the Chinese community to address the problems it faces from racism.
Justice Minister Michael McDowell recently addressed the issue in an article written for the Sunday Independent.
“Our legal obligation to give refuge to asylum seekers who come here fleeing persecution is matched by an equally clear legal and political imperative to deny access to those who break our laws by pretending to be refugees when in fact they are economic migrants who are queue jumping,” he wrote.
Still they come
Yet still the immigrants and asylum seekers arrive at Ireland’s door, though the door is being guarded with increasing vigilance.
In a quiet housing estate in Galway city, Nigerian Odunayo Onanuga and his wife, Olasinmbo, or Ola, were reunited after a separation of two years. Ola had the chance to move to Ireland in 2001, and she took their three children, Toby, Victor and David, with her. Odunayo was finally able to join his family, and the couple have now had a fourth son, Daniel, aged only 3 months.
On a Saturday morning in June, Odunayo explained what his immigrant experience had been like so far. In the living room of their small, three-bedroom house, blue balloons hung from the walls with the words “It’s a boy!” on them.
“There are jobs in Nigeria, but the real value of the money is nothing compared to the euro,” he said , as his three eldest sons watched television. “We are much better off economically here. The security aspect of life is better.”
Odunayo has not found work yet. In Nigeria, he had trained to work in banking and finance. He does not have the correct papers for working in Ireland. He is guarded, like many immigrants across the world, scared to speak about his precarious situation.
“It’s difficult as well for someone like me, who has been working their whole life,” he said. “I don’t like being idle. But I do get to spend time with my kids.
“We receive assistance with the rent. We get support from social security, but it is not very much. I hope to be employed soon, but I am always looking, it seems.
“I am trying to take a course at Galway Institute of Technology in construction engineering. It is something to diversify from what I know already.”
Odunayo said that, in general, his immediate family has not experienced any racism. He misses his family in Nigeria, and, not surprisingly, the weather in Ireland, he said, “bothers me sometimes.” He stressed that the Department of Justice had treated him professionally and respectfully.
Under current laws, the birth of their son in Ireland enhances the chances for the Onanugas to become permanent residents, because their son is legally an Irish citizen. But these laws are set to change.
“The government is seeking to overturn the rule that governs Irish-born children of non-nationals,” said Ronit Lentin. “Quite a number of people are issued with short-term visas — 12 months, 24 months — with no promise of citizenship as in the U.S. I see it creating second-class citizens. The same government has established anti-racism measures, not really realizing that it is creating a situation for non-nationals.”
Regardless of how Ireland has approached its immigration situation so far, the matter is about to become more complex, thanks to the Treaty of Nice.
During the recent general election, which returned Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail government to power, immigration did not become a significant electoral issue. Said one Dublin political lobbyist who did not wish to be named, “I think people basically accept that immigration is happening and that they will have to accept it, and no matter who is in power will be forced to deal with it.”
Earlier in 2002, Irish voters, in a low turnout referendum, rejected the Nice Treaty, which among its provisions allows for new countries to join the European Union. Once inside the EU, people will move in the direction of labor demand, and, as many experts have stressed, Ireland needs cheap labor.
By 2005, six new countries are scheduled to join the EU: Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic and Estonia, a total population of 75 million people.
Many in Ireland fear that the new countries will further dilute Ireland’s influence in Brussels, and recently, newspapers painted a scenario where people from these poorer countries will spread across the EU, many ending up in Ireland.
Again, public opinion seems to split between those who fear for Ireland’s future prosperity in an ever-widening union, and those who feel the Irish have an obligation to be generous, and to help other countries as Ireland was helped in the past.
“Why should we jealously guard the pot against newcomers?” asked one man waiting for a bus in Dublin.
“Yes, but will there be enough to go around?” asked his companion.
“Of course there is,” he replied. His friend was less certain.
Enlargement of the European Union will undoubtedly bring more immigrants to Ireland. As Irish society shifts gears to deal with this new situation, increasingly, economic refugees will seek to find a new and better life in Ireland’s towns and cities. The test for Irish society is how it will respond.
On the corner of Dublin’s Abbey and Marlborough Streets, nearly deserted at 7 p.m. on a recent Sunday evening, stood a nervous young man dressed in black pants and a black leather jacket. Tinted glasses protected his weak eyes, and in his hand he carried an important-looking briefcase.
Suddenly, he wheeled round and confronted the man next to him.
“Would you like to buy this?” he asked in a heavy Eastern European accent, simultaneously opening the hefty briefcase.
The briefcase was empty except for three packs of Marlboro cigarettes.
“No thanks,” came the reply. The young man looked desperate.
“Please,” he pleaded. “I need help. I need money.”
He hesitated a moment longer, then snapped shut the briefcase and walked quickly away toward the Liffey and to a fate unknown.
While highly skilled people flock to Ireland and to well-paid jobs, just as many will come as this young man did, in the hope that somehow a better life would transpire.
The fate of such an immigrant depends on many complicated factors: his own intent to succeed, the extent to which government controls allow him to succeed, how quickly Irish society adjusts to accommodate struggling people from other cultures.
Recently, Brendan Butler of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation, addressed the issue.
“We do need people to come here, with high, medium and low skills,” he said. “In society generally, this is a new issue. I’d be very concerned that Ireland would not be open and tolerant, as one would expect. We have a history of being a very open and tolerant society. There is some evidence emerging that there is quite a degree of racist tensions beginning to develop in Ireland. From a business perspective, that could be extremely damaging.”
At Trinity College, Ronit Lentin agreed, but pointed out that Irish people have a poor record of treating its own Traveling people. And she suggested that the government must take more of a lead in getting the balance right.
“I think the government wished that immigration would go away,” she said, when asked how it was responding to the situation.
A recent experience sticks in her mind. She had gone to the emergency room of a hospital.
“The place was teaming with non-national staff from all over the world,” she said. “If there wasn’t a need, they wouldn’t be there.”
Kenneth Flynn, a taxi driver in Dublin, spent several years in the 1980s and ’90s as an immigrant in Boston, before returning to Ireland. Optimistically, he reckoned that Ireland would cope with emigration.
“Remember how Brian Lenihan made everyone mad back in the ’80s, when someone asked him about all the young people leaving,” he said, referring to the late Fianna Fail tanaiste. “Lenehan said, ‘Well, we can’t all live on a small island.’ Well, it seems like we can, and will, and we’re going to have to share it with a whole load of people.”