The No Vote and The Pesky Immigrants

I was thinking about the big deal made of immigration as a factor in the No vote in the Irish press over the last few days. See here. Only 1% of No respondents chose ‘to avoid an influx of immigrants’ as a reason from the list of available options in the Eurobarometer survey, but that doesn’t stop people from pointing the finger at immigrants as the root cause of the decisive No vote. OK, so they don’t do it directly. Rather, it’s via a form of ventriloquism: it’s not me who blames the immigrants: it’s the No voters.

Given the institutional pressures to produce a Yes vote, and the consequent pressures to remedy the situation as quickly as possible, it’s hardly surprising to see immigration presented as an easy explanation for the No vote. Since both mainstream media and the government largely serve business interest, what we are seeing is a collective project of getting back to a position of Yes to Europe as soon as possible, and the referendum results and the surrounding data are being interpreted in that light. The government receives criticism for its failure to sell the treaty, but not for the conditions that produced a No vote, and a working class has temporarily swung into the media’s purview, but only as a totem of ignorance, backwardness and xenophobia.

Fine Gael has blamed ‘left wing campaigns’ for ‘stirring the immigration pot’.

Fine Gael deputy Lucinda Creighton said she believed the phrase used frequently by Sinn Féin of a ‘race to the bottom’ had become a code for stoking public fears about migrant workers driving down Irish wage rates.


‘‘You had Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin and almost all of the No side talking about this mantra of a ‘race to the bottom’. They dressed it up as concerns that these workers were not being paid the same as Irish workers – but it fed a fear that foreign workers were coming in, taking jobs and working for less,” said Creighton.

The phrase ‘race to the bottom’ has little, if anything to do with ‘foreign workers coming in’. Says here that the term was coined by Louis Brandeis. It has to do with the consequences of deregulation and competition between states for investment capital. In the context of the European Union, a practical example would be where a firm based in one location sets up additional plants with excess capacity in other locations where the wages are lower. The low wage locations, desperate for the investment, will accept whatever conditions are laid down by the firm. Consequently, the workers in the location with better conditions will be forced to accept a deterioration of conditions, and their means of bargaining for better wages will be undermined by the excess capacity in the other location. In short, go on strike if you like: we’ll send production elsewhere and you can go fuck yourselves.

Either what we see from this FG TD is an astounding display of braying ignorance, which would be disgraceful enough, or she does know what the term means but, because she thinks the phenomenon it describes is a good idea, she is quite happy to claim that it means something else, so that -with an eye on the next referendum- she can depict perfectly legitimate reasons for voting No as founded on right-wing xenophobia.

The Sunday Business Post produced a poll which apparently revealed ‘a high percentage of No voters want more stringent limits on the number of foreigners coming into Ireland’:

‘This newspaper’s poll reveals that, of all respondents, 59 per cent believe there should be stricter limits on the number of foreigners coming to Ireland, while 37 per cent disagree. About two thirds of those who voted against the treaty agree with stricter limits.’

So about two thirds of No voters agreed with stricter limits, which means that half of those who voted Yes also agreed with stricter limits. That is also a high percentage of Yes voters.

But is the poll result evidence in itself that immigration was a decisive, or even significant factor in the No vote? To arrive at that conclusion, would one not have to demonstrate that immigration was also a significant factor in the Yes vote?

What this poll does not provide is an indication of the relative importance of immigration to other issues in terms of how voters made their choice. Therefore it says next to nothing about why people voted No. I mean, you could ask voters whether they think paedophiles should be castrated, and it may turn out that a higher percentage of No voters favour castration for paedophiles, but you couldn’t say, based on that, that people voted No to Lisbon because the EU does not castrate paedophiles, or, in the Sunday Business Post’s terms, ‘A fear of paedophiles not getting castrated was an unspoken issue behind the Lisbon No vote’.

It’ll continue like this until people vote Yes, you know. Even if they have to rewrite history so that the No vote caused a recession.

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3 Responses to “The No Vote and The Pesky Immigrants”


  1. 1 Longman Oz July 5, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    I agree with the point that you are making re the dangers of linking these two issues without establishing what the level of correlation is. Nonetheless, there seems to be much more talk of getting stricter on immigration now that times are getting tougher for a while. I have genuine concerns that migrants will end up becoming a handy whipping boys for our problems, especially when a populist government finds itself on the back foot.

    For example, Chris Andrews made a speech in the Dail following the Lisbon Treaty. In it, he made some remarks about multiculturalism not being the way forward for this country that I considered to be scurrilous (http://debates.oireachtas.ie/DDebate.aspx?F=DAL20080618.xml&Page=2&Ex=867#N867). What most amazed me was that the remarks seemed to receive little political, media or blogger attention. I did write something about it myself though, as it really bothered me.

  2. 2 Hugh Green July 5, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    There is more talk about it. One of the advantages of blaming immigrants for the recession -and the fact that the country is up to its eyebrows in personal debt- is that it deflects attention away from those truly responsible for the present situation.

    Andrews’s comments were revolting stuff (well spotted), with the same sort of ventriloquism characteristic of all such speeches: it’s not I who thinks these things – it’s the average joe in my constituency. Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech used the same device.


  1. 1 Irish Left Review - Lisbon and Immigration: Why Ireland Voted No Trackback on July 22, 2008 at 5:06 pm

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