France, Immigration, Ireland, Islam, Religion, Uncategorized, United Kingdom

Large scale immigration requires ‘the nation’ to be redefined

(Published in Metro Eireann, 2007)

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ (Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784)

Provisional census figures indicate that the there are approximately 400,000 non-nationals living in this country. Coping with such a level of diversity is a new challenge for the indigenous population of a peripheral island historically removed from the European mainstream, une isle derriere une isle as a French historian once put it. To date most of the new entrants have come from other EU states, but if, as seems likely, our economy continues to grow, increased numbers will arrive from elsewhere.

In order to achieve successful integration we may need to learn from other states in the Union, in particular Britain, where a model of multiculturalism prevails, and France where a different policy – that of assimilation, has been pursued. In 2005 both countries experienced serious incidents, civil disturbance in France and the terrorist attacks of July 7th in Britain, which called into question the efficacy of their respective policies. To achieve a peaceful transition, in this country, from a relatively homogenous society to one that is successfully cosmopolitan, it will be vital to strike the right balance between respecting diversity and encouraging integration.

The Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007

In a recent address to the Law Society the Tanaiste, and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell revealed the legislative response, in the shape of the Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007, the government will make to the large scale immigration of recent years.

In his speech, McDowell also explored how we identify ourselves, a theme which has been put in sharp focus by the pronouncements of the leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny, to the effect that we are a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people, which, apparently, makes us ‘understand better than most the special challenges of immigration and integrating new communities’. In an international climate which features a perceived ‘clash of civilisations’ to define ‘the Irish’, an increasingly diverse population, in racial and religious terms can, at best, be regarded as naïve, and at worst provocative. Mr McDowell, to his credit, repudiates the Fine Gael leader’s simplistic characterisation and instead advocates a ‘republican’ model rooted in ‘diversities of identities and traditions’.

The Minister also adds to the lexicon of Irish historiography by coining the terms ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Irish to distinguish between the indigenous population and new arrivals, many of whom will become citizens. One letter-writer to a national newspaper complained that, by analogy, an Irish person living in England could be referred to as ‘New English’, suggesting that this would be entirely unsatisfactory. This, however, is more testament to the stunted level of integration in Britain; the McDowell definition suggests that ‘Irishness’ is not the sole preserve of indigenes.

McDowell argues that there is little a government can do to promote integration: ‘[T]he breadth of the approach to this issue internationally suggests that integration policy and objectives are not particularly tied to legislative diktat’. He does, however, envisage some form of citizenship test: ‘[Citizenship] should perhaps be conferred only on those who can demonstrate that they have a minimum level of understanding of the nation and state to which those duties are owed and a minimum capacity to interact linguistically with the other citizens of the state’. The legal basis for a language test might be difficult to find in a country where the Constitution defines Irish as the ‘first national language’. Would immigrants be required to learn Irish? This approach evokes memories of Norman Tebbit’s absurd ‘cricket test’ for immigrants to Britain. The idea appears misguided; such an examination might demand a level of knowledge from a new immigrant that many a native would not attain.

Island Refuge

From independence, this state did not welcome foreign intrusion. Notably, Jewish refugees were not offered sanctuary during the Second World War. This reluctance can be explained by the efforts of a newly emerged governing elite to forge an unvarying national identity based on language and Catholic values.

The arrival of exoticism from abroad, in any shape or form, was not encouraged, especially while the country’s population continued to be drained by emigration, and resources were scarce. Cead Mile Failte would be extended so long as foreigners remained foreigners, admiring us from afar, or ideally, providing us with tourist dollars.

Times have obviously changed, the policy of autarky; the goal of self-sufficiency belongs to the past, we swim in the global economic maelstrom. It took some time to get there but now we serve as an exemplar to other post colonial states; the star pupil of the EU, brash and self-confident. While the boom depended in the early stages on the young population, since the turn of the century we have come to rely on foreign labour.

The relative opulence of virtual full employment counters a prevailing inclination towards begrudgery among the ‘Old Irish’, and also means that the new arrivals have, in general, avoided poverty. Further, as the majority have come from other European states, most of the ‘New Irish’ share cultural traits common to the ‘Old’, not to mention similar pigmentation. These factors have defused the threat of xenophobic political movements emerging. However, with birth rates at historic lows across the EU, and with the likelihood that the economies of Eastern European will improve as community membership takes effect, demand for labour will be filled from elsewhere if our economic success is to be sustained. This will bring increased immigration of peoples from countries with traditions and lifestyles more divergent to our own.

Londonistan

In Europe, it is possible to identify two main approaches to immigration; the British model of multiculturalism, and the French alternative of assimilation, neither of which have proved entirely successful.

In Britain, the issue of immigration came to the fore in the 1960s, most memorably in Enoch Powell’s speech predicting ‘Rivers of Blood’. The doomsday scenario has certainly not come to pass, although there have been numerous incidents along the way; race riots, the infamous Stephen Lawrence murder, and more recently the modest rise of the BNP and UKIP.

The main thrust of successive British government policy has been to deter discrimination. The Race Relations Acts (1965-2000) provide a legislative scheme for ensuring equality of treatment in areas such as employment, education, and housing. Further, a long liberal tradition has allowed immigrants, stretching back to Karl Marx, to freely express their opinions. Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s ‘Londonistan’ emerged as a place of intellectual ferment for Islamists. This has been offered as an explanation for why Britain had not been subjected to attack by Islamic terrorists before the events of July 7th 2005 shattered the delicate modus vivendi.

Stemming perhaps from colonial experience, the British approach has been to identify various ethnic or religious blocks and patronise their leadership. However, the attempt to define, and to an extent control, ‘ethnic’ groups often generates confusion; for example in the ethnic coding for the 2001 census; ‘Muslim’ is offered as an ‘ethnic’ category under the heading ‘Asian’, while ‘Jewish’ (another religious category) falls under the heading ‘White’, with ‘Arab’ (are Jews and Arabs not supposed to both be Semites?) defined under ‘Chinese or Other’. The point is that ethnicity is a malleable concept, subject to change according to individual whim.

The British Home Office patronises various groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (which is provided with financial support), as representatives of religious or ethnic blocks. But it is not always the case that individuals are satisfied to be represented by so-called ‘community leaders’, or that these often self-appointed individuals accurately reflect the views of their ‘community’; recently, a group of Jews in Britain came together to launch Independent Jewish Voices, an organisation opposed to the policies of Israel which are supported by the long-standing Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Anyone who has lived in London can testify to a level of alienation not experienced in other large cities. A trip on the Tube offers a parade of withdrawn faces. Tolerance can often lapse into a superficial political correctness, while communities stick to themselves.

Acknowledgement from social commentators and politicians that all is not well in multicultural Britain is beginning. In a recent article in The Guardian (1/2/07) Timothy Garton Ash wrote that the reality of multi-culturalism is ‘one of far-reaching alienation among young British Muslims. In an NOP poll last year, less than half of British Muslims interviewed identified Britain as “my country”.’ The situation in many communities of Afro-Caribbean descent is also a cause for concern, as gun crime reaches alarming proportions.

One source of the difficulties is the existence of an entrenched class system that encourages segregation. The effect of this is reinforced by colonial traditions that frowned upon miscegenation (cohabitation or marriage between different races); Britain is more mosaic than melting pot, and global currents enlarge the cracks.

Political Islam lays emphasis on the umma, the Islamic community, to the exclusion of ethnic or national identities. Social stratification has provided a breeding ground for this ideology, especially in the North of England ravaged by Thatcherism. Added to this social discontent, the foreign policy of the British government, strongly associated with what is perceived as a U.S ‘crusade’ against Islam, has created serious tensions that culminated in the suicide attacks of July 7th, 2005 which marked a new chapter in inter-communal relations. Currently relations are frosty, and much could depend on the foreign policy that emerges from the Blairite abdication.

The tradition of tolerance in Britain is to be admired, but the rigid stratification of ‘ethnic’ groups is increasingly a cause for alarm among politicians and social commentators in that country. Successive governments have tended to ignore the challenge of integration, giving rise to a situation where it would be fair to ask how many people would see themselves as ‘British’ as opposed to any of the other competing identities.

Veiled Threats

French colonisation developed by contrast, a policy of Assimilation (although Association was practised in later colonies such as Morrocco and Syria). The objective was to mould Frenchmen out of the native populations and there was no such taboo around miscegenation as under British colonisation. Indeed, the more sensual French tended to celebrate the native, perhaps most memorably in Gauguin’s depictions of Tahitian life.

However, efforts to integrate native populations ultimately failed, owing perhaps to the exploitation that defines the relationship of coloniser to colonised. This failure was seen most starkly in Algeria, the oldest of French colonies which had been integrated into Metropolitan France, where a brutal war of independence led to the deaths of at least 350,000 (and over twice that number according to Algerian sources) which effectively led to the demise of France as a colonial power, and has caused lasting enmity.

Within France, the state seems to continue a policy of Assimilation towards immigrants most of whom arrived during France’s trente glorieuses, (1945-1974); the thirty years of prosperity that followed the Second World War. In contrast to Britain, the French government does not allow official statistics based on ethnicity or religion to be compiled. Nonetheless, it is estimated there are 6.7 million people of immigrant background.

The absence of statistics cannot, however, mask clear fault lines exemplified vividly by the continued success of the National Front, Europe’s largest avowedly xenophobic party, the leader of which, Jean Marie Le Pen, interestingly, fought in the Algerian War of Independence. Its continued electoral success shows that there are ingrained prejudices in French society directed against those perhaps still considered colonial underlings. Indeed, an analysis of 1999 French census data elicited evidence of significant occupational segregation with immigrants occupying ‘jobs shunned by natives.’

Recent years has seen unemployment hover around 10%, generating discontent, and latterly civil disturbance. Scenes projected by the fictional film La Haine came vividly to life on a massive scale in 2005 as riots erupted in les banlieus causing extensive damage to many French cities, and leading to the declaration of a state of emergency.

Although the Renseignements Generaux (French Intelligence Agency) denied that there was an ‘Islamic factor’ to the riots, the aggressive policy of secularisation, a polite form of Assimilation, has fuelled tension. The ban on the wearing of the hijab (and other religious symbols) in schools allows Islamic militants to portray the state as Islamophobic, but for many in France this has become a fundamental tenet of their republicanism, so it would be almost impossible for any government to change course.

French society is highly politicised, strikes and manifestations seem to occur more regularly than in any other state on the planet. To an extent this is indicative of a healthy body politic, and revealingly, a 2006 survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre, found that 72% of Muslims in France perceive no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, in contrast to Britain where Muslims split evenly (47% saw a conflict, 49% did not). Furthermore, French foreign policy, particularly the French stance on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought the French government more in step with the views of most immigrants.

Nevertheless, the seeming unwillingness of the state to face up to diversity ignores the frictions in French society, and the ban on the hijab only stokes tensions without achieving any discernable objective. Ultimately, it is likely to be economic factors, especially the prevalence of unemployment, which will define future relations. It also remains to be seen how, if elected, the current Presidential favourite Nicolas Sarkozy, who advocates a more pro-American foreign policy, will effect relations.

Clean Slate

Unlike many other European states, the ‘Old Irish’ can define a relationship with the ‘New’ without the burden of colonisation. Indeed, as colonial subjects, and with a history of emigration, we should begin with a certain empathy with many Third World immigrants. Also, a tradition of neutrality means that this state is unlikely to get involved in foreign misadventures. But initial goodwill, on both sides, could rapidly dissipate.

There are clearly lessons to be learnt from the French and British experiences, and Michael McDowell is disingenuous to contend that the legislature does not have a role in confronting the question of integration. Council estates, and les banlieus have emerged in Britain and France as breeding ground for poverty and crime, allowing terrorism and civil disturbances to flourish. It is crucial for integration that our government pursues housing polices that counter the possibility of such ghettos. Already, socially deprived council estates have engendered a pernicious gangsterism among the ‘Old Irish’. It is surely vital that a like degeneration does not manifest itself among the ‘New Irish’.

Another danger, in the longer term, is that the gulf in wealth between the migrant and native could fuel tensions. An increase in the minimum wage, or further reduction in the lower band of income tax, would have an equalising effect. Otherwise, a neo-colonial relationship could take hold, with immigrants taking on the subaltern roles in Irish society with ‘occupational segregation’ emerging.

From the French experience it is worthwhile to observe the value of instilling in immigrants a sense of pride in the nation. The educational system is crucial to this endeavour. The presence, still, of habit-wearing nuns still teaching in schools, ought deter controversy over the issue of the hijab, but our education system does perhaps require a dose of secularisation; schools run by religious orders are unlikely to be acceptable to many non-Catholic immigrants, and it is important that children from different backgrounds are acclimatised to one another. The bifurcation of Protestants and Catholics in the North of Ireland can perhaps be traced to the segregation of schools there.

Modest Proposal

Article 27 of the Canadian charter reads as follows:

‘This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.’

The Irish Constitution already ‘cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage’; would it not be fitting to amend our Constitution to include a similar endearment towards immigrants?

Rising Tide

Fortunately, no significant racist or xenophobic political movements have emerged in this state; in contrast to many other European countries where, in recent years, political parties advocating stringent controls on immigration have grown in popularity, and have even entered into ruling coalitions. For all its faults, the melting pot of U.S. society has been far more accommodating to immigrants. Perhaps Europe’s inability to integrate immigrants is best explained by how, with France perhaps excepted, pride in the nation is generally bound up with attachment to a particular ethnic background, or volk. There is an urgent need to repudiate this conflation, and re-appraise this understanding of the ‘nation’. The views of Dominique Schnapper of the Constitutional Council of France are endorsed: ‘The Classical concept of the nation is that of an entity which, opposed to the ethnic group, affirms itself as an open community, the will to live together expressing itself by the acceptance of a unified public domain which transcends all particularisms.’

If we define ourselves as a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people we embrace an exclusive “particularism” that will exclude immigrants. Michael McDowell’s definition of the ‘Old Irish’ and ‘New Irish’ is helpful, as Irishness ceases to be exclusive. Nonetheless, the state should refrain from a heavy-handed Assimilation, allowing for the celebration of other cultures, not just our own. It is also important that this government move beyond rhetoric and adopt policies that will smooth the process of creating an “open community”.





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