An immigrant's view of Ireland

I moved to Ireland in early 2008, at a time where the benefits of the Celtic Tiger started to fade and when the perspective of a global and national economic crisis started to seem more and more apparent. I was moving from France, where I was living at the time, and I remember being greatly surprised by my first impressions as a migrant and a new to resident in Ireland. By Pablo Rojas Coppari, a Paraguayan national working with the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. 

Society seemed to be quite vibrant, energetic and quite jovial. I was happy to be in a place where social interactions appeared to be 'normal' and not subject to a series of unspoken rules as there seemed to be in France. On the other hand, I felt a bit reluctant about people attitudes towards money, spending habits and sense of entitlement to ownership in general.

Anyway, my adaptation to Ireland was quickly shaped by a third and more tangible factor: the economic crisis. Through my work with other migrant workers, I started to realise that this was not just another topic to converse in the pub and fill the headlines. It meant a sense of precariousness, uncertainty and an alarming hostility on a daily basis.

At first I thought these were initial and temporary reactions. After all, we knew those behind the recession were not migrants; but in fact they were one of the most affected. I however thought that the whole climate would be more conducive to a proper discussion about rights, equality and accountability for decision makers and those in positions of power.

Unfortunately, the recession worsened. That debate never really took place, and those who are the most vulnerable now find it even more difficult to assert and access fundamental rights such as housing and healthcare. Also, the government at the time took a move to bail out the banks at the expense of the most vulnerable in society, whether migrants or not.

By cutting social welfare payments, reducing service provision and undermining an already limited safety net in Irish society, they effectively exacerbated hostility towards those less powerful and marginalised: essentially scapegoating migrant workers and ethnic communities. They generated a 'Us versus Them' scenario where any wrong-doing can be blamed on migrants: unemployment, reductions in social welfare, the minimum wage, longer housing list, criminality, tax fraud, the informal economy, and the list goes on and on

As time progressed and it became evident that the government had become alienated from the reality of the people and could no longer be seen as representative. I turned my hope towards the elections. How surprising it was that in the short and intense build-up to the elections, there was virtually no mention of any issues affecting migrants or ethnic minorities (over 11% of the population). During the election campaign it came to light that minorities looking to assert their rights had no space in this election; judging from comments in respect of gay rights, made by deputies Lucinda Creighton and Jimmy Deenihan (who later became Cabinet Members).

From the results, it looks like the concern for equality and rights did not sparkle in people's mind. People have decided to hold accountable, through the election process, those politicians previous in power and behind the crisis but decided not to reflect about changing more. However, they chose another right government to replace another right government (except that this one has an overwhelming majority). The people chose a prospect of economic recovery, as opposed to looking back at the problem, tackling its foundations, engaging into more sustainable and long-term solutions.

On the bright side, what is there to expect from the next five years? The likelihood of having another cash-fuelled boom is nil, which means that the possibility of reckless expenditure is non-existent. This will hopefully lead people to readjust their preoccupation with material gain, economic growth and notion of climbing the social ladder. As a consequence, there might be a role to play for those at the bottom-end to participate on equal grounds in society by pushing them towards activism and civil society participation.

There is also hope in the coalition partners. As a centre party (incorrectly called centre-left in my views) Labor has a responsibility to ensure that economic and financial matters do not monopolise the government agenda. They have to lead a serious and constructive debate on a range of social issues that for too long been ignored in Irish politics. By this I mean abortion legislation, same-sex marriage and adoption, secularism, etc. They have to promote equality through the government's agenda by having proper immigration reform, ensuring that we fulfil our international commitments to human rights standards.

As well, the opposition finds itself in a very interesting place. Politics are moving away from two-party dominance. In the current configuration, the opposition is probably the closest representation of Ireland's diversity. New blood coming into the Dail hopefully indicates a new-found interest and engagement with politics by people who want to move away from that dominance and who are looking for solutions and alternative.

For migrant workers political participation only happens through naturalisation. They become visible in the politician's eye and therefore a target for their canvassing. I actually wonder how many candidates bothered knocking on doors where they knew migrants were living. And also how much time and consideration they gave to their opinions when they happened to knock on them by mistake.

Arguing for non-naturalised migrants to have the right to vote is a lost cause. Instead, the political parties and the government should push for more migrant candidates in local elections. Councils have the function to develop leadership skills before they get into national politics.

In the meantime, I shall keep in mind that while I still don't have a vote, I am a political person and I shall look for different forms of participative democracy outside the electoral process; but I believe that only when the first batch of foreign-born politicians get into the Dail we will start to have a proper discussion on integration, ethnicity and what it means to be Irish in a contemporary context. The bottom-line is: There's no integration without participation.