We, The People

One of the collective admonishments regularly delivered to Irish people about their attitude towards immigrants is the fact that Irish people have a long history of emigration, and ought to show more empathy with those who come here from other countries.

This is true, but it is also true that most Irish people living here have never lived nor worked abroad. Of those who have, the most common destinations are the UK (which is hardly ‘abroad’ anyway), the US and Australia: all Anglophone countries where assimilation is relatively easy.

Even taking this into account, the results of the recent Irish Times poll are still quite shocking. It appears that three-quarters of Irish people favour work permits for EU citizens from the newest 10 member states. 70% think that there are enough or too many here already.

In the absence of more detailed data, I can only speculate about the thought processes that lead so many people to hold this opinion. To this end, I tried listing what I imagine to be the most common complaints, most of which I have heard at some point or another:

Ireland is getting overcrowded;
They are forcing wages down;
They are threatening property prices;
They are here to leech off our welfare, and not interested in working;
They are taking Irish jobs;
We don’t like to hear people saying things we don’t understand. They could be plotting anything: you just can’t tell;
This is an Irish pub/estate/town for Irish people: we don’t want their type around here;
The more immigrants, the more burglaries;
They want to impose their culture on us;
We like our barmen to talk like the voice-overs for Johnston Mooney and O’Brien.

and so on and so forth.

I see no point in addressing any of the above points, other than to say that most are founded on parochial ignorance of social and economic realities. But they may be inevitable, given the extent of immigration to Ireland over the last decade.

One problem I have noticed is that to address the type of thing outlined above, the potential benefits (or perhaps, in the case of Labour and SIPTU, threats) of immigrants and further immigration seem to be expressed within a framework of ‘what immigrants can do for/to us’. That is, there is one group – the immigrants – and there is another – ‘us’.

The ‘us’ involved here in this discussion is familiar. It’s the same ‘us’ that Eddie Hobbs addressed to great effect in Rip-Off Ireland. The irony here is that while this programme aroused collective indignation about the extent of uncompetitive practices and high prices, the majority of people in the country still believe that restricting access to the labour market is a good idea.

People like talking about we Irish here: it appears all the time in print, on the radio and TV. It can be in a positive or negative context, but it’s always there. Now maybe it’s because I’m a N*****, but I have always felt excluded from this stuff (but am I bovvered? Am I? Am I bovvered??).

It feels like the ‘we’ includes those who have been collectively described as The Pope’s Children, the mammy, the daddy and maybe the granny. So you get well-meaning articles such as those the Irish Times talking about ‘Our New Neighbours’, which seem to exclude the possibility that ‘we’ who read it could be anyone other than people born and raised in the Republic of Ireland.

It’s hard to know at what point the barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ will begin to fall.
The Republic has a long tradition of identity politics. Its national flag – the green, white and orange – is supposed to symbolise peace between people of different identities, but the problem for immigrants is that it means peace between two specific identities, neither of which applies to them. That only applies to ‘us’.

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January 2006
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