Lisbon Highlights The Need For Debate

Lisbon highlights the need for a debate on immigration

By Tom McGurk
06 July 2008

This column has been predicting it for some time and it may finally be about to happen: a debate about immigration and its wider consequences for Ireland. It could even be a debate free of the deadening influence of the politically correct.

Indeed, in the aftermath of a close analysis of the result of the Lisbon Treaty referendum, which has revealed the extent to which public reaction to immigration fuelled the No vote, the timing could hardly be more appropriate.

If growing concern about immigration in Ireland helped to fuel the No vote, some of the analysis of that vote is most revealing. For example, young people voted No by a margin of two to one; the majority of women voted No; and a large number of people who rarely vote in general elections also voted No on this occasion.

Who could have expected such a result from such a gender and age profile section of the electorate? Given that it is also normally expected that a younger generation – particularly those who could be described as Irelands euro generation – would be more sympathetic to the challenge of a changing Ireland within the new European experiment, the size of this young No vote was totally unexpected. Why should so many young Irish be in such a mood?

Add to this the fact that the turnout in working-class areas was unusually high, and that so many who normally dont vote in general elections came out. Can one doubt the widening levels of public concern? For example, is this young anti-Lisbon vote about their growing concerns for their employment prospects and the shape of Irish society in the context of recent levels of immigration? Nobody knows, but is it an unreasonable conclusion to draw?

Nor can there be any doubt that the Lisbon vote has at long last shaken our political classes out of their torpor. Those who for almost a decade have been hiding behind the platitudes of the new Irish multicultural jargon have suddenly realised that immigration has become a significant political issue. It is out there in their constituencies, and its a live issue.

Recently, both Labours Ruairi Quinn and Fine Gaels Brian Hayes admitted that they had been wrong about their previous advocacy of multiculturalism, and are now advocating a policy of integration instead. In the context of the controversy about the wearing of the Muslim hijab, Quinn said: If people want to come into a western society that is Christian and secular, they need to conform to the rules and regulations of that country.

Hayes was even more emphatic, saying that it makes absolute sense that there is one uniform for everyone, and that the wearing of the hijab was not a fundamental requirement to be a Muslim, but more an example of modesty and cultural mores. The question of immigration has also finally reached the Dail. Last week, in a post-mortem debate on Lisbon, there was a general if somewhat reluctant agreement across all the parties that reaction to immigration had widely influenced the No vote.

TDs Mary Harney, Joan Burton, Lucinda Creighton and Michael McGrath all expressed this opinion, while Chris Andrews of Fianna Fail went so far as to say: Multiculturalism is not the way forward and strict integration is the best option. When one considers the examples of France and England, one will realise diversity has brought considerable problems. Ireland must address this matter.

But who is to address this matter, now that a serious debate – as opposed to a happy-clappy one – is threatening to break out? Look at the reaction of the National Action Plan Against Racism (NAPR) to the Lisbon vote. According to the NAPR, a government funded-body set up by Michael McDowell when he was minister for justice, if you voted No to Lisbon, you were somehow being racist. So some 54 per cent of the Irish electorate are racist?

Ask Lucy Gaffney, chairperson of the NAPR, whose assertion this was. According to the NAPR website this week, Gaffney said: The revelation that immigration was a contributory factor towards the No vote in the referendum demonstrates the major challenge of confronting and eliminating racism in modern Ireland. For all of us who are active in the area of integration, anti-racism and multiculturalism, this is extremely worrying.

This is precisely the sort of comment that has so damaged the complex task of creating integration in Ireland and in the process angered so many people. How extraordinary that an authentic expression of the publics concern about immigration expressed in the Lisbon vote should produce such a reaction.

Sometimes one wonders, given Gaffneys remarks, if the organisations set up to help immigrants are the ones most likely to hinder them. Like most people involved in the vast number of organisations that have sprung up around immigration in Ireland, Gaffney is the classic well-heeled do-gooder whose expertise is in business, not social policy.

Beside these government-funded organisations and quangos that have sprung up in the wake of immigration, we also have a vast collection of mostly self-appointed charities which have emerged. They are to be found day in, day out in the streets collecting money. Suddenly, it seems dealing with what they call racism in Ireland has become a huge business.

The curious thing is that, in my experience, there is little or no evidence of racism in Ireland. Indeed, given the huge numbers who have arrived here and in so short a time, the general reaction here has been exceptionally welcoming. It sometimes seems that, irrespective of what the circumstances are, some of these organisations are determined to find racism in the community.

We are the last country in Europe to have a wave of immigration and, for the moment, it seems we are determined on making the same mistakes as all the others made. For example, so much of British and French efforts down the years merely ended up with ethnic ghettos and the creation of a new underclass. In a curious way, the principal mistake that generation of failed multiculturalists made was the enormous intolerance they showed towards peoples fears about immigration. They also ensured that any debate was shackled by such political correctness that most politicians were frightened away.

The Lisbon vote has clearly signalled the task facing us in Ireland and, given where the economy seems to be headed, the prospect of rising unemployment and economic downturn raises a classic scenario of competition between immigrants and native Irish for declining resources. Thats not something anybody wants.