Irish Changes More Than Skin Deep

Daniel Strieff, MSNBC, March 17, 2008

PORTLAOISE, Ireland—As revelers worldwide celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a pint of Guinness, dyed-green milk or visions of red-bearded leprechauns, it’s a good bet that few of them will have Rotimi Adebari in mind.

But, for those seeking an authentic vision of today’s Ireland, perhaps they should.

The election last year of Nigerian-born Adebari as mayor of Portlaoise is the most prominent manifestation of the changes sweeping this island, which is rapidly evolving from a land of emigration into one of immigration, where at least 1 in 10 people is foreign-born.

This transformation—fueled by a decade-long economic boom and relatively liberal immigration laws—means Ireland has gone from Western Europe’s poorest and most homogeneous country to one of its wealthiest and most cosmopolitan in little more than a generation.

For the first time in its history, Ireland, which sent hundreds of thousands of emigrants to the United States, Britain and elsewhere, is wooing large numbers of migrants.

That has forced the country—and communities like Portlaoise, a commuter town of 14,000 residents 50 miles southwest of Dublin—to get a crash course in integration.

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Fastest-growing country in Europe

The Irish economy now depends on migrant workers—whether Asian medical personnel, Eastern European service staff or Polish construction workers.

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In the 1980s, Ireland was barely able to retain its own. The unemployment rate was around 18 percent and thousands of young people were fleeing the country annually for Britain, the United States and elsewhere. The endless conflict in Northern Ireland along with divisive battles over social issues in the south combined to scare off the best and brightest.

But boosted by generous tax benefits for multinational companies, the Irish economy roared to life during the nineties, earning the moniker, the “Celtic Tiger.” Between 1995-2000, the economy expanded at an astounding average of 9.5 percent per year; now it has eased to a still robust rate of 4-5 percent annual growth.

The newest arrivals have helped boost Ireland’s population—now at around 4.2 million—to its highest level since 1861. It’s the fastest-growing country in Europe.

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Under the most generous immigration laws in Europe, Ireland until 2003 automatically granted citizenship to foreign parents of Irish-born children and, until 2004, gave citizenship to Irish-born children whose parents were not Irish nationals.

A nation transformed

As the number of asylum applications and economic migrants rapidly began to increase, both laws were rescinded—the former by the high court in 2003 and the latter by national referendum the following year.

Although official statistics vary due to difficulties in monitoring movement within the open-bordered European Union, estimates for the number of Eastern Europeans—mostly Poles—living in Ireland range from 150,000 to 300,000. Since the mid-1990s Ireland also accepted an estimated 30,000 asylum seekers, especially from Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

Compared to the United States, the influx may not appear significant. Ireland remains nearly 95 percent white. But in a country that had virtually no people of color just a couple of decades ago, the change on the ground is unmistakable.

Parts of north Dublin, chiefly Parnell Street and nearby Capel Street, are developing into the country’s first Chinatown. Just yards away, on Moore Street, the Dublin brogues of the loquacious market vendors would be familiar to generations past, but the noodle shops that line the street would not.

On the south side of Dublin’s River Liffey, the influx of young people from across Europe has helped the emerging arts and cafe culture in the trendy, cobble-stoned Temple Bar district rival its better known continental counterparts.

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Brazil in the West

For example, in the western town of Gort (pop. 2,500) half the population is non-Irish, including nearly 900 Brazilians. To the south, in Ennis, Nigerian-born physician Taiwo Matthew became the first immigrant elected to local office when he won a seat on the town council in 2004. A Dublin-based South African dance studio owner, Joshua N. Amaechi, choreographed last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in the capital, the country’s largest.

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Warmth and openness?

But the absorption of so many foreigners—especially those who may be nonwhite and non-Catholic—has at times tested Ireland’s reputation for warmth and openness.

Many economic migrants from non-EU countries complain the country appears to have an ad hoc immigration policy that, at best, leads to administrative headaches and, at worst, leads to abuses of vulnerable workers.

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But unlike other European countries, Ireland has yet to have any major anti-immigration political parties. Still, acts of racism—and violence—are not unheard of.

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In Balbriggan, a Dublin suburb, children of African immigrants found themselves attending an all-black school this fall because the country’s overcrowded education system could not find a place for them in any existing schools. The incident was blamed on a paperwork snafu, but suspicions of racism lingered.

An open question remains how welcome recent arrivals will feel should the Irish economy begin a downturn and the competition for jobs becomes fierce.

The soaring cost of living is already testing Ireland’s lure as a base for international companies.

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