CRIME, health and the economy are all predicted to be the key issues in the general election.
But there is another which keeps cropping up on doorsteps—immigration.
The speed of the transformation since voters last went to the polls five years ago has been staggering, with more than 325,000 immigrants arriving from the new EU member states alone.
They have boosted economic growth and filled vital gaps—in one night at the Mater Hospital last month, 97 out of 106 nurses on duty were from outside the EU, mainly India and the Philippines.
But they have also increased the pressure on sectors such as schools, where teachers are struggling to cope with pupils speaking in more than 165 different languages.
The key question in the forthcoming debate is a simple one: is immigration necessary to sustain the economic boom or will it overwhelm the State’s stuttering public services?
All of the political parties—except Fianna Fail—responded to a series of questions on immigration submitted by the Irish Independent.
Sinn Fein and the Green Party have the most positive attitude to immigration, describing it in turns as having “huge potential to change our national dynamic for the better” and a “welcome part of modern Irish society”.
Fine Gael and the PDs were more keen to emphasise the responsibilities of immigrants to uphold the law and to accept the values of a democratic republic. Labour is somewhere in-between; looking for a fairer and faster asylum system but also better inspection rates to stop low-paid immigrants from undermining Irish worker wages.
The biggest fear among immigrant groups, such as the Association of Nigerians in Galway, is that they will be turned into scapegoats during the election campaign.
“We are mindful of the fact that some politicians may want to resort to the use of racist and immigration issues to score cheap goals in term of vote winning,” said its chairman, Niyi Adelekun.
He issued a plea to politicians from all parties to avoid this because it would only breed “apathy, dissension, and hatred”.
The National Consultative Committee on Racism has got all of the parties to sign an anti-racism protocol in advance of the election.
But its chief executive, Phillip Watt, said there was always the danger that individual politicians could play the race card if their seat was under threat.
“I know words have been said privately to politicians who cross the mark and start playing the race card. That (tendency) has been viewed very negatively within political parties.”
There has been no sign of the development of a far right party, which would openly promote anti-immigrant views, like the British National Party or Jean Marie Le Pen’s X Party in France.
The only exception is the Immigration Control Platform, which Mr Watt dismissed as “a joke”.
“They have stood candidates in general and local elections and they have had derisory support, so long may that continue.”
The Green Party and Sinn Fein are in favour of abolishing the restriction on workers from the new EU states of Bulgaria and Romania, but Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and Labour are in favour of maintaining it.
The Immigrant Council, in its election manifesto has called for the appointment of a junior minister for immigration to be appointed so that one person would have control of the asylum process, integration policies and anti-racism campaigns. Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, the Green Party and possibly Labour are in favour of this, but the PDs are not, arguing it would take responsibility for the issue away from the cabinet table.
The immigrant vote is unlikely to be significant in this election, because many of them have not yet acquired Irish citizenship.
Vitaly Makhnanov (31), originally from Ukraine, hopes the next government in power will focus on integration. As the Cork-based chairman of the Eastern European Association of Ireland, he said there was a strong economic case for the Government to promote immigration.
“It’s needed at this stage; 70pc of Irish people are young people up to 35 but if they become very old, the rest of the young population won’t be able to feed the rest of the country. The birth rate is going down, that’s why this country needs some potential workforce to contribute, to pay taxes.”
According to the information supplied by the parties, none of them have selected any candidates with an immigrant background to run in the general election.
None of the parties were able to supply statistics on the number of immigrant members because they do not ask for details of a person’s nationality or race.
However, all of them said they had immigrant members, with the Labour Party estimating that it could be as high as 10pc in its Dublin branches.
Social and Family Affairs Minister Seamus Brennan said that while immigration should not be a voting issue, there was nothing wrong with a debate about integration policies.
“Other countries who saw very big immigration like France somehow didn’t get to manage it and didn’t get to integrate them properly and you saw what happened with the riots there,” he said.
‘Better to face the devil you know . . .’
GERMAINE Awoudou will be voting for the first time in the upcoming general election.
The 37-year-old, originally from Cameroon, is working part-time as a security guard while he studies for a degree in marketing and management at the Limerick Institute of Technology.
He said he was grateful to the Government for giving him Irish citizenship in 2002. “I’m ready to vote and I will probably vote for the party which is in power at the moment because this party really helped immigrants coming from Africa.”
Germaine is living close to O’Connell Street in Limerick city centre. He is aware of some of the politicians in the five-seater constituency, such as Defence Minister Willie O’Dea. “He’s a good man, he’s working like every politician, his opinion is just to attract the most people who can vote for him. That is legitimate.”
Germaine plans to give his first preference vote to Fianna Fail because, as the party in power, he feels he can judge them.
“We have a saying in Africa—it’s better to face the devil here you know than the devil you don’t know,” he said.
But he is also impressed by local Labour TD Jan O’Sullivan.
“She really helped a lot of immigrant people who were in a bad position. They were about to be deported. She’s brilliant.”
Germaine has a daughter, from an ex-partner, who is now living in France and he regularly travels to see her.
He was taught how to cook by his brother and his dream is to set up an African-influence restaurant in Limerick.
Germaine is annoyed by people who rely on stereotypes to judge him, believing he and other immigrants should be judged on their behaviour.
“There is no point in coming here and starting a rubbish business like selling drugs . . . we must contribute, to bring our knowledge and add to Irish knowledge.”
But overall he is very optimistic about his future in the city and the attitude of the people towards him. “People in Limerick are really improving the way they look at us. I remember when I came here in 2001, it was tricky and tough for us to live in society. But people are more open now.”
Politicians who have courted controversy
Ivor Callely, Fianna Fail TD (1999)
Was roundly condemned when he called on the Government to “throw out” illegal immigrants. Mr Callely claimed the country had become a soft touch for immigrants who “cashed in on benefits”, and said the Government should adopt tougher policies
Noel O’Flynn, Fianna Fail TD (2002)
Described asylum-seekers and refugees as ‘spongers’ and ‘freeloaders’ in the run up to the 2002 General Election. The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern rejected his remarks, but Mr O’Flynn (pictured right) said he stood over them.
Enda Kenny, Fine Gael leader (2002)
Was forced to issued an embarrassing public apology after it emerged he had used the word ‘nigger’ during a joke at a private function.
Conor Lenihan, Fianna Fail TD (2005)
He urged Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins, who had campaigned on behalf of Turkish GAMA workers, to ‘stick with the kebabs’. He later apologised for his comments, made during a Dail debate.
Mary O’Rourke, Fianna Fail senator (2006)
She controversially thanked her Fianna Fail campaign team for ‘working like blacks’ to secure her nomination in the next general election. She insisted it was meant as a compliment.
From Cameroon, now an Irish citizen: Paddys new look.
MORE than 700 Romanians are arriving here every week to exploit a legal loophole which allows them to work, despite the Government’s decision to restrict their permits.
A total of 4,409 PPS numbers have been issued to Romanians since the beginning of the year.
This is 25pc more than the total number of Romanians who were issued with PPS numbers for the whole of last year.
The Government had expected work permits’ restriction to limit the number of Romanians arriving here.
But they are able to get work by presenting themselves to Irish employers as self-employed sub-contractors—and at much cheaper rates than Irish workers.
Union leaders last night urged the Government to clamp down on rogue employers who are exploiting the loophole to slash wage costs.
They raised concerns that employers may be getting around the work permit restriction by falsely claiming their Romanian workers are self-employed.
SIPTU president Jack O’Connor said that while it was too early to have evidence of the practice, people could draw their own conclusions about what was happening.
He said the Government had made “virtually no progress” in implementing the labour protection measures in the Towards 2016 social partnership agreement it signed last year.
“There’s no evidence of Revenue activity to stop bogus self-employment; no evidence of any commitment to effectively regulate employment agencies; and no evidence of using public procurement of goods and services to uphold employment standards,” he told the Irish Independent.He said he has written to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Finance Minister Brian Cowen to express his union’s dissatisfaction.
“Those three areas are key to whether or not we can have any kind of effective employment mechanisms. The potential is there for vulnerable people to be exploited—there’s no doubt about it.”
Both Romanian and Bulgarian workers have freedom of movement in the EU since their countries joined on January 1 last.
However, just 176 Bulgarian workers were issued with PPS numbers. In contrast, the 4,409 PPS numbers issued to Romanians are already 25pc higher than last year’s total.
Although it is less than the 8,827 PPS numbers issued to Polish workers this year, it is still more than the entire total issued to the 10 other EU accession countries combined.
The issue of enforcing the restrictions on workers from the two new member states is expected to play a part in the general election.
Both Sinn Fein and the Green Party have a policy of lifting the restriction, while Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Progressive Democrats support it.
The Immigrant Council of Ireland is also launching its election manifesto today, in which it calls for better data and research on migration, as well as a long-term immigration strategy.
The overall tally for PPS numbers allocated to workers from former EU accession states since May 2004 is now more than 326,000.