We have the best policy in the world in terms of access to local elections and in running for local elections, but there are several problems and the primary one is that people don't know that they can vote and or run, writes Elaine Loughlin.
With just three out of the 948 local councillors around the country coming from an migrant background, there is significant work to be done to increase diversity on local authorities.
While the census shows the number of residents born outside of Ireland is steadily on the increase — with the number standing at 810,406 or 17.3% of the entire population in 2016 — these new Irish are not being represented at political level. While any resident, including asylum seekers, have the right to vote, in many cases it is a lack of knowledge that holds people back.
“We actually have the best policy in the world in terms of access to local elections and in running for local elections, but there are several problems and the primary one I suppose is that people don’t know that they can vote and certainly people don’t know that they can run,” said Joe O’Brien, who is integration outreach officer with the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
Ireland offers a vote to every adult ordinarily resident here, with no stipulation around how long you have to be living here before that eligibility applies.
Anyone who is ordinarily resident in Ireland can also stand for local election.
“I do workshops with groups of migrants on a very regular basis, basically anywhere I can get 10 people in a room I will go and do a workshop and 80% to 90% of people in the room won’t know that they can vote, so that’s the base line problem,” said Mr O’Brien.
“Of those who know they can run they are not taking the leap.”
The Immigrant Council of Ireland now hopes it can put forward at least one non-Irish candidate in each constituency in next year’s local elections.
“We are not going to bridge the gap in one election cycle. It is going to take a few, we need to test the waters and we are saying to people try it out, we will give you guidance, don’t be disappointed if you don’t win, run a campaign that you can get something out of.”
The council is now running workshops, has developed an internship scheme which has already placed five migrants with councillors, and is hosting one-to-one mentoring for people who are serious about running.
“We are very much pushing people to run,” said Mr O’Brien.
However, the party system in Ireland can be very difficult to break through, with the majority of candidates and elected represented being male.
Mr O’Brien pointed out that in Donegal Council Council just three of the 37 elected representatives are women.
“A lot of parties are closed and at a local level, the same as you have with women it can be difficult to get into, it can be a closed shop particularly the larger parties where there is competition for places and completion for nominations.
“The competition for the nomination at party level in some respects can be more aggressive or more energetic than the public election itself,” he said.
However, David Stanton, the minister of state for equality, immigration and integration, said all parties are encouraging people from every background to get involved.
“I think there are a lot of people who want to become involved and have joined parties.
“Every party, without exception, is encouraging migrants to become members and get involved.”
While taking the party route can be more difficult, even for prospective Irish candidates, the Immigrant Council is keen to point out that there are other options available to anyone interested.
“You can run as independent very very easily in Ireland, four weeks before the election you fill out the nomination paper, you get 15 signatures from people who are in that area and you are off,” Mr O’Brien said.
“So we are trying to demystify it for people, we want to say it is very easy to run as candidate.”
Part of their work is about making people realise the value in using the campaign as a platform and it may not necessarily to get elected the first time around.
“We are saying to people that there is really good community value and personal value in running a campaign.
He used the example of one Polish candidate who ran as an Independent in the last local elections who did not get elected but managed to secure 400 votes, as a result she was then approached by one of the main political parties to run on their ticket.
“The value of getting migrants to run is that other migrants will then find that they can vote, so it’s also a strategy of getting more migrants involved more broadly speaking, but we need the figureheads running in as many areas as we can to boost the knowledge of voting rights.
“We need people to be groundbreakers, we need people to be role models in the community, we need people to make a stand on a particular issue, we are saying you can use the local election campaign as a way of raising issues be they local or national,” he said.
Joining a party was a natural progression
As a young boy, Ammar Ali often attended neighbourhood meetings with his father where issues like a lack of street lighting or potholes were discussed.
When his family moved here from Pakistan in 2011, he got involved in his school’s student council as he studied for the Leaving Cert.
And so joining a political party was a natural progression for the 24-year-old who is now studying pharmaceutical science.
“In 2013, I saw that there was a change in leadership and that Micheál Martin has a new vision to take Ireland forward, I also saw in the local elections of 2014 that new faces were being represented by Fianna Fáil so that give me a particular spark.
“I felt that the party was trying to build the communication gap between local councillors and the local community.
“So that was the reason I was attracted to join Fianna Fail,” said Mr Ali, who was elected equality officer in the IT Tallaght student union elections. He also served as the chair of the IT’s Órga Fianna Fáil branch between 2015 and 2017.
Unlike Pakistan where it can take years to go up the ladder and to have your voice heard in politics, Mr Ali said he has been pleasantly surprised by how all members are listened to in Irish political parties.
Mr Ali, who lives on Dublin’s South Circular Road, has his sights set on the 2019 local elections, but would some day love to be involved in national politics.
“It’s up to the party as to who they want to run as a candidate, but I will definitely put my name forward for Dublin South-West Inner-City,” he said of next year’s local elections.
“There are a huge amount of migrants in the area and also I know lot of local community members.
“I know the issues and I think it would be really good to have a local migrant voice representing people there.
“If I get a chance to represent my party and my community on the council it would be an honour.
“Coming from Pakistan and becoming a councillor, that’s something that Pakistanis would be proud of.”
He added that he has been inspired by Senator Catherine Ardagh who he has worked within the constituency.
“Right now is my main focus is getting Catherine Ardagh elected, she inspired me greatly. She lost the local election, she came strong in the 2014 local election, then I saw her losing by 35 votes in the Dáil election but she is going strong,” he said.
“I think Fianna Fáil has a really good agenda of bringing everyone together,” he said.
Yulia may consider running in next election
Having been involved in politics at a grassroots level in her native Ukraine, Yulia Ghumman decided to intern with a local councillor here.
She spent four months shadowing Fingal councillor Duncan Smith and is now thinking about running in next year’s local elections but believes the real barrier for migrants is a lack of knowledge.
“I didn’t even know that I could vote in the local elections before this project, this information is not available to us, we generally don’t know about our right to vote or how to get involved in politics,” Ms Ghumman said.
She came to Ireland in February 2015 with her husband who got here to work as a doctor and quickly became involved in volunteering with the Association of Ukrainians of Ireland.
Ms Ghumman, who lives in Swords said: “I was actually involved in politics before in my own country.
“I was a member of a party, it was just during my school time after I graduated from school, I was interested in politics so I helped out with the party with activities.”
During her studies she became interested in the issue of integration and immigration.
“So it was a combination of interest from at home and interest in politics picked up through my involvement in the association, that made me think about doing the internship.”
She said the placement, which was organised with the help of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, has given her a new confidence around getting involved in Irish politics.
“I started in Fingal County Council offices in Swords.
“I got see first hand what a councillor’s day is like, I was involved in daily administrative tasks, and learned how he deals with people, with cases in the phone, how he solves problems, meetings, Labour Party meetings, dropping leaflets.
“I also helped design a leaflet for him, we went canvassing for the Repeal the Eighth referendum, and I helped prepare maps for the canvassing teams,” she said.
Ms Ghumman also got the change to spend one day a week in the office of Labour TD Brendan Ryan in Leinster House.
“Before starting the internship I had no idea that any councillor would be interested in taking on an intern.”
She said the lack of awareness among migrant communities of their right to vote and even run for election is a huge issue which means they are not represented.
“It is a problem because even in Leinster House there are very few females, most elected politicians are men, I know there are three migrant councillors but I have never met any elected immigrants.
“That is like a barrier for us.
“If we had more exposure to politics maybe more people might have an interest in getting involved.”
She added: “I am still thinking about running, it is very interesting and I am also considering joining the Labour Party.”
Tian Yu Lloyd: Arrived for study, stayed for love
It was love that made Tian Yu Lloyd stay in Ireland, but connections to her native China that led to involvement in politics here.
She came to Dublin in 2002 to study where she met her husband who is Irish and made her life here.
“I wasn’t in touch with the Chineses community in Ireland or the migrant community for a long time because everyone around me was Irish,” she said.
However, after finding a group on Facebook and making contact she found that many people who have come to work and live here from other countries had similar issues to her.
“I started taking an interest in migrant issues, particularly because of social media and from getting in touch with different groups on Facebook.”
In 2016, during the general election campaign, she began reading the leaflets and party manifestos that came through her letterbox and was drawn to the Social Democrats.
“I got to know some of the other members of the party and realised that it was a group of people that have very similar ideas to mine.
“There is also no historical baggage attached to the Social Democrats, I found they just wanted to do good,” said the native of Hangzhou in China.
Since joining the party she has become involved in canvassing and awareness raising.
She is now chair of the Dublin Bay North chapter of the Social Democrats and has been encouraged by the response on the doors when she goes out canvassing.
“The fact that I am a migrant sometimes helps and people who have also come to Ireland will often talk to me and raise issues.”
The stay-at-home mother, who has an eight-year-old daughter and a stepson, 17, also volunteers part-time with Place of Sanctuary.
The organisation aims to promote the integration, inclusion and welfare of refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, by encouraging every sector of society to make a practical commitment to becoming places of welcome and safety.
She was a student on the first of these courses and stayed on to help others with a similar interest.
“It’s a course to teach people how to communicate and how to effectively raise your voice, it also goes through how the Irish political system works, how the voting system works, and how to get in touch with the media and also some public speaking skills.”
The group has also gone on day trips to Leinster House to get a feel for national politics.
Her reason for getting involved in politics and community work is simple: “It’s about ordinary people trying to make a change.”
‘High time’ migrants got involved in politics
It is now “high time” for migrants to become involved in politics, whether that is joining a party, running for office, or simply exercising their vote, according to Ini Usanga.
She is helping to organise an event in Cork’s City Hall next month to encourage people who have come to Ireland to participate in politics.
Ms Usanga came to Ireland in 2001 from Nigeria and through her work as a youth worker and family violence expert she became aware of a significant gap in the political sphere.
“The whole thing started when I was working with a lady and she had a problem, she had an issue so we felt it was best to refer her on to her local reps in Cork to get further support.
“So that’s what sparked this, I felt that if we had a migrant involved in politics we could probably relate better with that person.”
Ms Usanga who now lives in Rathcool, Co Cork added: “I think it is now time for us to take a stand.
“It’s high time that migrants also have a voice in Irish politics, especially here in Cork because we have no one.”
The mother of three is involved with the Love and Care for People group which is working with a number of organisations to create awareness and will be encouraging involvement through the upcoming mobilisation event.
“A few months ago we started talking about organising an event to get ourselves involved in Irish politics, to have a voice as opposed to other people making policies for us.”
Political parties will take part in the event which has been organised for September 22 in City Hall and will be similar to an event held in Dublin last March. Ms Usanga who is now considering running in the 2019 local elections, stressed that while information is key the onus is also on migrants to get involved themselves.
“You don’t necessarily have to run for office, but you have a vote and you can use it, it’s about participation.
“It’s about using your voice, when you feel that something is not right, go to your local TD or your local councillor and speak out, it’s really about that and about encouraging people to get involved.
“No one should feel like they are exempt because at the end of the day we live in Ireland, Ireland is now our home to all us and our families, so we should be engaged, we should participate.”
She added that sometimes those who come to Ireland to work or study fear they will be dubbed as “the black sheep” if like they speak out about issues in the community, but this is not the case.
“People prefer to keep quiet. It’s important that they know that when something affects then or they don’t feel comfortable with something, you speak about it you don’t stay silent, because silence doesn’t change anything.”