July-August 2024 49
Irish people are comfortable with immigration
despite media and political cynicism
The centre held in the European Parliament elections
(except in Germany, France and Austria) and even more
so in Ireland, with a few vocal exceptions
By Ciarán Nugent
he nature and intensity of the
current discourse on immigration
in Ireland is a massive failure of
traditional media. Unjustifiably
amplified, riddled with
misinformation and disinformation and
bereft of appropriate context, the claims of a
new breed of Irish extremists, a very few of
whom were rewarded in the recent elections,
go untested in mainstream media. This
article looks at how immigration has been
thrust to the top of the media agenda over
the past year, how this aligns with public-
opinion data and whether or not far-right
messaging is supported in the most recent
round of labour-market statistics.
After years of a strategic ‘but what about the
far left’ deflection of the rise of the far right,
the two main centre-right government
parties leaned full-tilt into a ‘sensible
discussion on immigration’ line as we
approached the European and local
elections, and a general election hoved into
Ursula von der Leyen cosied up to the far-
right grouping in the European Parliament on
behalf of a European People’s Party (EPP) the
increase in whose MEPs (around plus seven)
was exceeded by that of the far-right
European Conservatives and Reformists
(ECR) (around plus 14). Anyone paying
attention to the rise of the far right in Europe
in the last few decades will feel that this was
all entirely predictable though von der Leyen
said after the results came in that the
Socialists, Liberals (Renew) and the EPP
should work together, again. When copying
far-right messaging hasn’t worked, come
election time, the centre right has been
partnering with them in coalitions all over
Europe amid falling support.
Either way, the eect of ‘if you can’t beat
‘em, join ‘em’ is the same. Far-right
messaging is normalised, given legitimacy
and takes root, including in public policy.
A change in strategy from government
parties began about a year ago in the lead up
to Budget 2024. Following large numbers of
arrivals from Ukraine over the previous year,
Tánaiste Mícheál Martin signalled a dicult
upcoming budget due to the number of new
arrivals, despite budget surpluses in 2022
and 2023 and the establishment of a new
sovereign wealth fund. In November the
then-Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced
that we needed to “slow the flow of
migration” and be “realistic” on the supports
oered. One of his last acts as leader was
signalling possible support for an EPP
proposal to deport asylum seekers to ‘safe
third countries’ in the Middle East or North
Africa, similar to the British Conservatives’
Rwanda plan. In July 2022, Micheál Martin
had contrariwise called that plan, “shocking
The riots in November last year, following
a violent incident in Dublin’s North Inner City,
accelerated the incipient clamp-down.
A “firmer immigration system” was one of
two bases on which Simon Harris declared
he would ground his leadership of
government. A “common sense”, “honest,
truthful” conversation is needed, he said,
standing in front of a line of tents of
unaccommodated asylum seekers on
Dublin’s Grand Canal:faster processing,
effective deportations and integrating
people”. At the very same time the
government was accused of delaying
publication of a ‘damning’ Housing report
calling for a radical reset of policy.
The media
Having similarly ignored the rise of the far
right in Ireland in recent years, as we
emerged from lockdown, much of the
traditional media in Ireland began focusing
on the insidious impact of social media on
political discourse and on polarisation. They
have recently begun almost daily reports of
the number of tents sheltering asylum
seekers along the canal as they compound
the agenda set by government, in the news
The public
Due to our own history of colonisation and
50 July-August 2024
foreign country’ overlapping with ‘born in a
foreign country.
For example, 76.5% of working age ‘first
generation’ migrants are employed as of the
final quarter of 2023 (up 2.1 percentage
points in 2 years), while 73% of ‘native born’
are (up 0.8% in 2 years). Foreign-born
migrants in Ireland are the fifth most likely to
be in employment of migrant populations in
the 27 EU members.
In 2022 alone, inward migration to Ireland
was 89,000, 66,000 of whom were non-Irish
citizens, while the net increase in employed
foreign workers was 74,000. Between 2021
and 2023, 144,000 of the 245,000 additional
total jobs were filled by foreign nationals.
Of these, 18,000 were in Management
occupations, 46,000 were in Professional
occupations and another 14,000 were in
Technician and Associate Professional
positions, these three groups making up
broadly what we call ‘high-end’ jobs
(requiring a third-level qualification for
Roughly translated, this means that 32%
of all employment growth in this period of
almost record growth was foreign-born
migrants in high-end employment. These
occupations are associated with the highest
salaries and therefore highest contributions
to revenue, with Professionals on average
earning more than the other eight
occupational categories.
An estimated additional 24,000 foreign-
born Craft and Related Trades workers were
added to the Irish workforce in the last two
years too amid a deepening housing crisis,
out of 38,000 in total (Almost 2 in 3).
In specific sectors we have details from the
CSO on a citizenship basis. Workers with
foreign citizenship in Information Technology
increased by 45% in the past two-to-three
years (from 42,000 to 61,000) and similarly
in Professional, Scientific and Technical
activities from 24,000 to 38,000. These two
sectors are central drivers of Irish economic
growth (not to mention of corporation tax)
and are among the sectors paying the
highest income taxes. We also have an
additional 20,000 Health workers with
foreign citizenship since Covid, about 40%
of all net new jobs in thAT sector.
So...though ‘slowing the flow’ of
immigration is now a stated top policy goal
of the sitting government, in the past two
years, new arrivals have disproportionately
filled roles in sectors which are central to
Irish development and growth such as IT,
housing and health.
Yes we need a ‘common sense’, ‘truthful’
and ‘honest’ conversation about immigration
but the facts justify more sunny optimism.
mass migration, until recently we had always
considered ourselves less racist than the rest
of Europe.
So, out of 22 countries participating in the
European Social Survey in August 2022,
Ireland by all measures was consistently
towards the top in positive attitudes towards
immigrants: “Immigrants make country
worse or better to live” (2nd); “Immigration
bad or good for country’s economy” (3rd);
“Country’s cultural life undermined or
enriched by immigrants” (4th).
And still, at the time of the riots in
November, Irish adults whose fathers were
in the lower half of the formal education
distribution (let’s call them broadly, ‘the
working class’) were actually more positive
about immigration in society than the
average in many of the other 21 countries.
The attitudes of the Irish working class on
immigration are much the same on average
as the broader average in France, Croatia,
Lithuania and Estonia and are far more open
on immigration than the average in the adult
populations of Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary
and Italy.
Reinforcing this, polls in recent months
have shown that, in Ireland, housing and the
cost of living continue to exceed by huge
margins immigration as “important issues
or “issues of concern” to Irish adults.
The Eurobarometer in February gave
respondents the option to pick their top two
important regional issues and immigration
didn’t even feature in the top five in any of
The top five were: cost of living, housing,
health, the economy/unemployment and
transport in that order (and note that
unemployment has almost never been
lower). Immigration was fourth on another
list, of “important issues facing the country.
A National Youth Council of Ireland survey
from February asked 18-29 year olds to pick
the three “most important issues facing
Ireland” from a list and just 28% included it
as one their three, less than half the number
that chose Housing (67%) .
Results from a monthly survey by the Irish
Times this year asking “what have you
noticed about what government is doing or
saying something about” has been
repeatedly and widely misinterpreted both
on social media and by more established
sources, including the Irish Times itself, as a
gauge of “top issues” that would inform
voting decisions
In October 2023, just one in ten surveyed
said theyd noticed Government doing
something about immigration. That fact has
been driving a lot of activity on social media.
In May 2024, Pat Leahy, the Irish Times
political editor let the cat out of the bag (I
assume) with this fascinating thought process
on the growing “attention” government is
getting for its immigration work:
The prominence of the immigration issue
has surged by 17 points this month, up from
12 per cent in April. Housing remains largely
steady, down by just two points. Housing has
consistently been in the top two spots,
whereas immigration rose to prominence in
the second half of last year.
Today’s results come after a period in
which immigration and asylum issues have
frequently dominated the news agenda”.
Well, yes, they would. April was the month
Simon Harris launched his premiership with
immigration one of two bases for action.
Housing wasn’t one of them. Who decides on
what dominates the news agenda?
The logic here would be circular if it were
not, as it is, simply flawed: 1) Government
starts messaging on immigration 2) Media
report government messaging on immigration
3) Media polls indicate people notice
government have begun messaging on
immigration through media 4) Media report
immigration is a ‘top issue’ for the electorate.
4) — of course — is not a logical inference from
Not for the first time, the apparent
‘government-in-waiting’ seems to have been
taken in by the framing and agenda-setting of
an establishment media that have consistently
shown themselves not to have their fingers
anywhere near the pulse of Irish society.
Having decided to try to compete for votes on
the right of this issue they lost support
elsewhere that will be hard won back.
Labour market
The far right is mplementing the same
playbook we’ve seen across Europe: that
immigration has prejudiced increased
numbers by exacerbating longstanding
capacity issues which circumscribe the Irish
welfare state — issues which all come up as
independent ‘top issues‘ in surveys.
Rising rents; rising house prices;
lengthening social housing waiting lists; and
GP shortages can all now be conveniently
blamed on the new arrivals.
Indeed the Government decided to take on
some of this messaging itself and cut
supports for Ukrainian refugees by over
80%, to €38 a week.
In 2021 at the end of lockdown, Ireland
surpassed for the first time the record set in
2007, pre-bank-bailout, of the share of
adults of working age in employment. Each
of these classifications has broadly similar
labour market outcomes as there is so much
overlap between them e.g.‘citizenship of a


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