Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
If one wants to know how fast immigration can change a society, then look no further than my family. First, a disclaimer: my father was, and remains, a successful businessman and so we had what could be colloquially referred to as “the few bob”. Culturally, however, we were still the standard bacon and cabaiste one-generation-from-the-soil middle-class Dublin family. We didn’t quite know what the ads for Tetra Delta on the radio were for, but we did know that immature fluke was a bad thing. We knew that Lucozade was partially medicinal because it came in orange cellophane, and that the tearing sound of the sellotape being pulled off a tin of USA biscuits declared a significant social event, possibly involving a monsignor and that most fabled of Irish shrines, the Good Room. We do still have a priest in the family, which used to be standard issue in most Irish families, and he’s also an American, in at least he has lived in the US for most of his life and speaks with an American twang.
That used to be the law, I suspect. Every household in Switzerland has an automatic assault rifle to be used in time of invasion. We went one step further: in Ireland every house had to have an actual American.
Nothing unusual so far.
Then modern Ireland intervened: now there’s my stepmother, who is Filipino, and my young brother and two younger sisters who are half Filipino but born here.
Then there’s my sister-in-law, who is Brazilian.
This is all a big deal: I grew up in the generation that regarded Phil Lynott as exotic, yet now we have family parties and weddings full of Brazilians and Filipinos and others. Tagalog, a Filipino dialect, is regularly spoken in the house, as is Portuguese.
Guess what? It’s great.
My father and my brother love their wives, and our family photos are now full of pasty-faced indigenous old Irish staring anxiously into the lens as if our souls were being stolen, and the new Irish, who actually look good in photos.
For my family, immigration has worked.
When I hear people banging on about “them coming over here” and the need to “look after our own first” I’ll be honest, the blood gets up. The immigrants I know work hard, mostly doing jobs many of the Irish won’t do. Maybe immigrants do take some jobs that Irish people would do, but more often than not I’d wager many of those jobs just wouldn’t be done at all. Would it force employers to increase wages to fill those jobs? In some cases, almost certainly. But that would also force up prices and we know who price rises hurt first. I’ll give you a clue: not the people browsing in Brown Thomas.
In short, I’ve no doubt that immigration makes a country richer, attracting the sort of people with the initiative to travel across the world, away from their families and loved ones to seek a better life. A country benefits from having those sort of people in it: just look at the number of immigrant businesses you see around the place.
I’ll tell you one other reason why I think immigration is a good thing: it gives us a good kick up the derriere about what a great country we live in.
You see it in the faces of those ceremonies where people are given their citizenship. Getting their Irish passport means something. They dress up for the day. They proudly display their certificates and photos of the day they officially became Irish. They weren’t born Irish: they chose it.
We could all do with a bit of that.
Having said that, there’s still a debate that has to be had about immigration.
First, it starts by admitting that wanting to debate it does not make you Sir Oswald Mosley. Immigration brings rapid change to a country, as my own family knows, and it’s perfectly logical for a country to want to debate, plan and decide what it as a society wants out of immigration.
Secondly, there’s nothing racist about a country wanting to ensure that those coming to live here share our values.
Of course, one of the reasons we struggle to even have that debate is because it is not one we are comfortable having ourselves. How do you inform a newcomer to our land of their obligations as a citizen when we don’t want to even discuss that amongst ourselves the indigenous population? Irish politicians can wax so lyrical about people’s entitlements that you’d can almost hear a bodhran playing in the background when they elocute. But get them to start listing out what obligations to the nation their voters have as citizens and they’ll leg it faster than you can say “Who left this tap running all night?”
Finally, there’s a reality about immigration that needs to be confronted. It was brought up in many working class areas during the Brexit referendum, and there’s a ring of truth to it. Immigration may well generate wealth, and make a country as a whole richer. But there’s no guarantee that said wealth will be shared out in any noticeable way.
Many who complain that society getting richer doesn’t affect them in any positive way, or that the rich (who do benefit from immigration) don’t pay any tax anyway never manage to explain who exactly pays for the welfare, health and education services they benefit from. Because invariably it’s not them.
Many complain that immigrants are taking up houses and jobs and public service resources that the indigenous population could be using. There’s probably some truth to that. But there’s hardly any talk about how much tax immigrants pay, and for less rights generally. You can work and pay more tax than you ever get back in public services in this country and still be turfed out of it, or you can sit in front of the telly for a lifetime whinging about how you’ve been hard done by, and get to stay because you were privileged enough (and it is a privilege) to be born Irish.
We talk a lot about taking care of “our own”, but I’m not sure that I buy being “one of our own” automatically merits my loyalty as opposed to towards a newcomer who wants to play by our rules and contribute towards the well-being of our community.
Fr Brendan Smyth was “one of our own”. In fact, pretty much every pervert who molested a kid in this country was “one of our own”. The Omagh bombers were “one of our own”.
Immigration is mostly a good thing, but it does create new problems. Before we point the finger at immigrants for all our woes, let us all consider an ugly reality: the main challenge immigrants face is that a large section of the country demand of them standards that they’d be outraged about if the state ever applied to themselves.
Let us never forget: for most of our independence we had negligible inward immigration. We barely had the proverbial pot to relieve ourselves in either.