Figures in the background don’t represent numbers on the ground

Figures in the background don’t represent numbers on the ground
A protest is ongoing at Achill Head Hotel, with some people saying they do not think the hotel is a suitable place to house asylum seekers. Picture: Conor McKeown

Do you know that we have more than half a million immigrants already? Is it any wonder we’re feeling overrun, any wonder we’re terrified and worried about all these foreigners?

Those are the raw figures you’ll find on the Central Statistics website. Nearly 13% of our total population is non-Irish national. Scary, isn’t it?

At least, Áine Ní Chonaill thinks so. She’s the founder of a body called the Immigration Control Platform, a body that exists to frighten the lives out of the rest of us.

She was plonked in the second row of the audience at a wonderful summer school in Courtmacsherry in West Cork last weekend, and used the opportunity to spout some of the terrifying statistics above.

The summer school was named in honour of Máire Ní Sithigh, a writer and playwright and a friend of Padraig Pearse. I took part in a panel discussion on the last afternoon, with good and decent people more distinguished than I, and it was to us that Ms Ní Chonaill addressed her devastating question.

Would the panel agree, she asked, that the fact that Ireland’s population now consisted of 15% immigrants was the root cause of our housing crisis, the demands on our health services, and all the other ills that beset us.

You could see eyebrows going up all around the room. 15%, people were thinking. How did that happen? How did we get there? All these foreigners, with their funny accents and religions and different coloured skin?

But of course it’s not actually like that at all. The 15% figure — itself an exaggeration of the actual Census total — is used to create an entirely false picture. It’s used precisely to conjure up an image of the kind of foreigners that your family wouldn’t be safe around.

And in that sense, it’s a lie.

Because guess what? Of those non-Irish nationals, 109,000 are here from our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom. Some 280,000 or so from the EU. And about 137,000 are from the rest of the world — Americans, Canadians, Australians among them. The vast majority, believe it or not, pure white and English speaking.

And yes, some are from Africa, and some are from Muslim countries. It’s not easy to find exact figures, but there is a table on the CSO website that shows there are between 1,000 and 10,000 people from Nigeria here, as one example. All told, 156 countries have contributed emigrants to Ireland, but three-quarters of them come from just 12 countries.

The CSO website also helpfully tells us where they all are. If you look up the Statistical Yearbook on the site, there’s a picture of each county in Ireland, with the top three non-national groups listed. It’s easy, and enlightening, to go to the website and have a look at your own county.

In Mayo they’re Lithuanian, Polish, and (horror of horrors) English. It’s exactly the same in Kerry, and Galway. Carlow has Latvians, Poles, and English. Clare has Poles and English too, but the third most populous group is the Germans. How could Germans and Clare people ever integrate with each other?

The Census doesn’t tell us in detail how many of these Germans and English and Latvians are dole-spongers, a drain on the State anda burden on our health and education systems.

But we know the answer to that already, don’t we? They’re running businesses, they’re supporting local economies with their pensions, they’re building houses, they’re keeping hotels and restaurants going. They are net contributors to our economy. They add diversity to our schools.

They’re helping to upskill our young footballers. They’re teaching us things about food and language andculture that we never knew.

In short, we couldn’t do without them. Well, maybe we could. But we’d be a much poorer place.

I’m sorry about all the figures so far, and I’m afraid I’ve a few more before I’m done. Because we really do need to get to grips with all this. There are people and groups out there who want us all to believe that Ireland is being over-run, and that we simply can’t cope.

The great replacement, some of them call it. The replacement of the Irish with black or Muslim people, a threat to our way of life and a violent and dangerous threat at that. There isn’t a shred of evidence, as the figures show.

But that doesn’t stop them trying to foment as much fear as possible.

I happen to believe that what has happened, and what is happening, in some Irish communities right now is deeply sad. The vigils and protests against asylum seekers are not though, in my opinion anyway, motivated by racism. They’re motivated by fear.

And, I think, by mismanagement. Secret tender operations that lead to dingy old hotels being done up overnight, and rumour mongering instead of hard information and decent consultation, have helped to foster a fear in several communities that they’re being got ready to be used as dumping grounds for dangerous elements.

I don’t understand the secrecy about all this. If you want to foment fear, keep people in the dark. If you want to engender trust, talk to people. But that’s not the way of the Department of Justice. Where immigration is concerned, that department has been in charge since the foundation of the state.

They regard the issue of immigration, like more or less everything else for which they have direct responsibility, as a matter of state security. The culture of secrecy, as damaging as it is, is intrinsic to the culture of the Department.

We need to approach it differently. Here’s a simple fact. If we were to decide to take in an extra 5,000 refugees tomorrow, that’s about one refugee for every thousand of us. If 3,000 of them were children, that’s less than one for every primary school in the country.

Not one for every class — one for every school. 3,000 children would increase the school going population by about half a percent.

It’s one and a half refugees — yes, I know you can’t really have half a refugee — for each district electoral division in the country. One for every town and village, and of course many of our towns could easily support more than one.

If you look at it that way, how can anyone argue that we can’t cope, that we are going to be over-run by one in a thousand?

Look, I know it’s simplistic to divide numbers as crudely as that, and just to apply simple arithmetic. It wouldn’t in the end of the day work out nice and even like that.

But there’s nothing quite as crude at the underlying racism, chauvinism, and Islamophobia that is being used to stoke fear in small communities. What all the figures show is that we have nothing to fear, and we could support a lot more without undue strain.

We are, after all, one of the richest countries in the world. With planning, consultation, openness, we can become one of the best countries in the world. At least when it comes to welcoming some of the most oppressed people in the world.

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