Immigration issues need more discussion (Irish Times)

A car set on fire  following riots in the Stockholm suburb of Kista May 21st, 2013. Photograph: Reuters
A car set on fire following riots in the Stockholm suburb of Kista May 21st, 2013. Photograph: Reuters

Riots in Sweden last week caused intense debate in that country about how immigrants integrate into society. The murder in a Woolwich street nine days ago led to a similar discussion in Britain. That came on top of a near obsession on our neighbouring island about the prospect of Romanians and Bulgarians having full access to Britain’s labour market from the beginning of next year.

While we in Ireland have a near morbid fascination with emigration, there is almost no discussion of immigration – something illustrated by the difference between discourse here and in Britain on the imminent access to both labour markets of Romanians and Bulgarians, among many other things.

One reason for the lack of discussion may be that so few problems appear to have arisen from Ireland’s rapid change from an unusually ethnically homogenous society to a highly heterogeneous one. The apparent smoothness of that transition has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the post-crash era – given the speed and scale of the change, and a non-perception of ourselves as noted xenophiles, one might reasonably have been fearful of a backlash against immigrants in the event of a slump. That has not happened and it is to be hoped that the “multiculturalisation” of Irish society remains as harmonious as it appears to have been to date. But taking that for granted would be wrong. As such, discussion about problems and risks is necessary.

By way of preface, it is worth saying that I am instinctively in favour of people deciding for themselves where they should live and believe that Ireland is a better place thanks to its much greater cultural diversity compared to times past. Moreover, the available evidence points to net economic benefits accruing from Ireland’s experience of immigration.

But immigration can have costs as well as benefits and these downsides should be discussed so they can be addressed. One example is the contribution of immigration to inflating the property bubble. Just as too much foreign capital was imported by banks to fuel the frenzy, the surge in the other mobile “factor of production” – labour – after 2004 also played its part.

Ireland was one of only three existing members of the EU who agreed to offer immediate and complete labour market access to the citizens of the 10 states that joined the EU in 2004. With the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to avoid the conclusion – from a purely economic perspective – that the decision to open the labour market fully in 2004 was a mistake.

Another underexamined aspect of immigration is its impact on income equality. An increase in the supply of labour will, all other things being equal, push down wages. Because immigrants tend to work in lower skilled areas, the big increase in migrant workers after 2004 is likely to have depressed wage growth in lower-paid unskilled sectors.

The most potentially negative aspect of immigration that requires greatest consideration is the risk of alienation, ghettoisation and, ultimately, social disharmony. The Immigrant Council of Ireland has spoken of “clusters” of immigrant communities that have the potential to become ghettoes. Ireland has a very clear late-mover advantage in lessening the risks of this happening. Many other countries have learnt lessons from their mishandling of integration, but it is not at all clear that the State and its agencies are exploiting that advantage. More widely, the absence of debate on immigration may be contributing to complacency.

We have a long history of sidelining those who dissent from the consensus in order to close down debate on important issues. There are many examples. To question the Good Friday agreement or to criticise social partnership during the boom quickly led to debate-closing accusations of being against peace and against industrial peace respectively.

Many of those sceptical of European integration remain silent for fear of being labelled little Irelanders, while others shy away from discussion of the poverty traps created by the welfare system for fear of being called uncaring. Raising issues around the downsides of immigration leaves one vulnerable to accusations of xenophobia and racism. But ignoring the downsides and risks of an enormous socio-economic change is dangerous. Lessening the risks of scenes such as those witnessed in Sweden taking place here is in everyone’s interests. More frank discussion of immigration is needed.