The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said that the integration of immigrants in Ireland is one of the country’s biggest challenges.
Speaking on RTE radio today, Mr Ahern said that integration of the “new Irish” should not be seen as a problem but as a challenge that has to be handled carefully.
“I don’t say this as a downside, there are many upsides to this, when I took over as Taoiseach 11 years ago 1.5% of the workforce of the country was new Irish, today it’s 14.8%,” he said.
“We shouldn’t see this as a problem but we must see it as a challenge – the integration of so much of the nations of the world, looking after the education, the new religions, the welfare, the extraordinary talents that many of these people bring. The challenges that some of them bring is going to be a big issue.”
Mr Ahern said that the integration of immigrants is a new issue for Ireland. He added: “This is an issue where we do not have any model. We have to be very careful how we handle it. If we get it right, there will be huge pluses for the country. If we get it half-right, it’ll create difficulty. If we don’t get it half-right, there’ll be huge problems.”
Another challenge facing Ireland is binge-drinking, according to the outgoing Taoiseach.
He said: “30% of the total occupancy of A&E’s in this country is made up with people who are off their head with drink. I’m not proud of that one. I think we have to challenge that one. There’s nothing wrong with drinking but there’s everything wrong with binge drinking. We have to change that attitude that people believe that you don’t drink six days but on the seventh you have to go out of your head. I think we have to get away from that and that’s big challenge for the future.”
Mr Ahern also praised what he termed the “very fine qualities” of his successor Brian Cowen.
“He is sharp as a razor,” he said. “He has a very fine intellect. He would grasp a brief three times quicker than me. I’d have to read it twice. I’d have to go through it maybe for longer hours... He’s highly intelligent. He’s a powerful speaker, better that I would ever dream of being.”
On whether he would fight the next General Election, Mr Ahern said he would decide that later.
“I always wanted to finish up where I started, being the local TD for Dublin Central... If the next general election was next year or the year after, then I would run. If the next election is in four years time then I probably wouldn’t run,” he said.