Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Immigration in Ireland

Maria Farrell and Jonathan Edelstein both post on immigration in Ireland.

The past decade or so of immigration in Ireland has been fairly extraordinary, following, as it does, pretty much a century and a half of mass emigration. According to The Irish Times Book of the Century (Fintan O'Toole, 1999):

By the early [nineteen] twenties, 43% of Irish-born men and women were living abroad...

That too is pretty extraordinary, and so is the rapidity with which the phenomonen has been inverted.

There's one thing Maria wrote that ticks me off though, one of the great cliches in pro-immigration discourse:

we’ve seen a great influx of people from central and eastern Europe and the Baltic states, much to the benefit of our economy and our society as a whole.

I think the word for this is reification. "Good for the economy", "good for society": here I stand with Thatcher, against treating abstractions as though they were concrete. Immigration may indeed bring net benefits to the recieving society and its economy. But net benefits means good for some, not so good for others.

It's hardly surprising that business interests, glad to have the domestic labour market "rebalanced" in their favour, and middle-class liberals, insulated from labour market competition with the newcomers and benefiting from cheap service labour (classically maids, cleaners, gardners etc.), are happy to welcome immigration, and bemused at the ignorant fears and prejudices of the lower classes.The latter, of course, are far more likely to be the losers in the whole net benefit gig.

This is not to reject immigration. As an internationalist I don't confine my sympathies to Irish workers - and constraining the free movement of workers (and others) does not come high on my list of ways to combat inequality, injustice, exploitation etc. in Ireland. What it does mean is that (short of a democratic economy, wherein workers would no longer have to compete with each other to be employed by capitalists) measures to combat inequality & co. in Ireland become all the more imperative - for pragmatic reasons relating to the danger of a racist/far-right "backlash" - as the immigrant, and soon immigrant-origin, population grows.

Matthew Yglesias has argued to similar effect:

...immigration, on the whole, has a positive impact on the American economy. It makes the pie bigger, as the case goes. But while doing so, it winds up disadvantaging an already disadvantaged group, which is bad. That sounds to me, however, like a situation that calls for a combination of higher levels of immigration (more pie) combined with more robust social insurance and social welfare spending (make sure the poor get enough pie) which ought to create a win-win situation for the broad mass of America's workers and consumers.

But also: the role of the trade union movement in fighting exploitation, in integrating immigrants into social life, in promoting solidarity amongst workers, quite simply in organising, becomes more important than ever, and for society as a whole.

"Here, I stand with Thatcher," he said with a provocative twinkle in his eye.
Provocative? Moi?
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