Mary P McAleese

Richness of Change: Gaining from Migration in 21st Century Ireland - Oct. 4, 2007

Mary P McAleese
October 04, 2007— Dublin, Ireland
Opening remarks at the Immigrant Council of Ireland Discussion on Migration
Print friendly

McAleese gave this address at the Royal Irish Academy.

Dia dhibh a cairde. Tá an-athas orm bheith anseo libh ar an ocáid speisíalta seo. Good morning and thank you for that very warm welcome. Thank you in particular to Sr. Stan Kennedy, primarily for her kind invitation to join you in this fascinating and vitally important discussion, but also, in this, her Jubilee year, for her years of work in the service of social justice, among the fruits of which is, of course, the Immigrant Council of Ireland. I have, in the course of two public engagements in the past fortnight, had the opportunity to meet and interact with several hundred Irish entrepreneurs, as understood in the classical sense. As a social entrepreneur, Sr. Stan stands with the best of them. Just as a traditional entrepreneur sees a gap in the market and fills it, so Sr. Stan, continually through her life, has spotted gaps in the social net and filled them in. We are blessed that Ireland is her "market" and her profit exists only in the successful bringing into the mainstream of those who are overlooked or forgotten or left out.

Just as emigration was one of the defining issues for virtually every past generation over the last century and a half, so for this generation in Ireland one of the defining issues is migration. We approach it with a distinctive history - where within very recent memory, the migration "boot" was distinctly on the other foot. Today, for every Sean or Liam writing home from the Bronx in the early 80s that he had found a job on a site, there is a Jan or a Marek e-mailing home that he's found a flat in Phibsboro and hopefully a well-paid new job that allows him, like so many Irish emigrants once did, to contribute financially to the well-being of his family back home.

Our perspective on migration is more than simply bi-directional. It cuts down through many past decades and across the globe. It gives us a unique perspective and experience which helps inform our approach to the many questions posed by the debate provoked by recent and substantial inward migration.

There is nothing in the least bit mysterious to us in the ebb and flow of people upping sticks and leaving their homelands in search of a better life. It was what we did ourselves by the tens of thousands from the 1800s right up to the 1980s. We have a recent memory of the loneliness, the sense of failure evoked by our inability to provide for all our own people and the courage it took to start a new life far from home. We know of the football clubs that languished without new members, the rural schools that quietly closed. We know of the new worlds opened up to us through the eyes of our emigrants, the way we grew familiar with cities thousands of miles away, the pride we took in their success, the fidelity they showed to their native home and its culture, the friends they made for Ireland and her music, dance, literature, and history. We have lived long enough to see the great tragedy that we once believed emigration to be, become a story of people returning, of second, third, fourth and fifth generation Irish making proud contributions in every sphere of human endeavour in every continent, powerful ambassadors and advocates for Ireland, actively helping to promote our recent journey to prosperity and to peace.

Yes these were the migrants that some people did not want and many did not welcome. Their story in all its diversity and fullness provides for us a humbling backdrop to our discussions about migration in today's Ireland.

But our exposure to the issue, however, is not without its pitfalls. For while it gives us a sense of familiarity with the topic, the issues faced by contemporary migrants are not necessarily those faced by our own emigrants. This key point captures the importance of the discussion you are hosting today. I particularly welcome your decision to include not only immigrant voices in today's exchange, but also that of Dr. Papademetriou, whom I am delighted to welcome to Ireland, and whose contribution, I have no doubt, will resonate long after his departure.

Superficially, that is to say on a purely economic level, Ireland has benefited significantly from inward migration. With our low levels of unemployment, the economy needs foreign workers to fill the jobs that in turn lead to further growth and prosperity. But Ireland is far more than simply an economy. We are a society where people share their lives and where the well-used gifts, talents, efforts of one enriches the whole. Long before migrants came to our doors in significant numbers, we needed the creativity and imagination that comes from diversity and we were introduced to the dangers of forced uniformity. Now this influx of talent, cultures and peoples presents us with a new set of realities, a new set of opportunities to build on, and challenges to deal with, to ensure that tomorrow's Ireland is a place that is flourishing humanly as well as being prosperous.

Foreign nationals comprise a full 10% of our population. 6% of our school population - almost 50,000 children - were not born here. In the reception that we give these children, we are sketching the future shape and character of our society. Intense and urgent work is underway - and must continue - to ensure that these children receive the same opportunities as their Irish classmates. This work spans a number of different areas including teacher training, the provision of support teachers, the publication of intercultural guidelines and so on, but the single most important, cross-cutting, life-transforming area is language training. 28,000 children in our schools today do not speak English as a first language. The efforts put into language training in previous years are being greatly intensified, as they must be. If Ireland is to benefit from the extraordinary potential offered by our transformed population, then we need to enable all of our population to realise their full potential and ensure that no one is excluded by a factor as fundamental, as basic as language.

Migration on the scale and in the very short timeframe we are now experiencing presents the State with many short-term and long-term problems. People need to be housed, protected, educated, healed, fed, employed, taxed and registered into everyday systems, on a scale that the natural increase in population would never have indicated. Overlying all of these demands is our policy on migration itself. As members of the European Union we have a commitment to freedom of movement between the peoples of member states, though there are for the moment temporary restrictions on our fellow Europeans from Bulgaria and Romania. As members of the international community we have certain obligations to genuine asylum seekers and tough responsibilities in relation to those who fail to establish their credentials as asylum seekers. As a nation with certain skills shortages we have visa provision for categories of non EU workers. These can be fraught areas and our policy-makers face a delicate task in trying to balance the needs, the rights and the responsibilities of the newcomer, the prospective newcomer and the host society. There is good recognition of the importance of that task in the new post, of Minister of State for Integration, occupied by Minister Conor Lenihan.

Policy, planning and provision are all matter in terms of the effective reception of immigrants into our society and especially our systems but civic society has a crucial and active role to play also. Settling into a new place, a strange place, with different language, customs, food, and laws is far from easy. Irish people know how very tough the life of an emigrant is and how the longing for that which is familiar can drive us to seek out our own. We have done precisely that in droves in New York, London and Sydney. But we have also struck out into the mainstream, knowing that it is one thing to bring your sense of identity and quite another to settle for life in a ghetto. The incubation of ghettoisation has no place in twenty-first century Ireland. It is a short-cut to racism and that too has no place in our society.

There are those who have and who express legitimate concerns about the impact of migration, whether it is on the lives of those already marginalised in Irish society, or mores and values, or wage levels or job security, or housing or a host of other issues. It is important that we create a space for those voices so that worries not in the least racist in themselves do not fester into racism but rather are talked out and dealt with in "all of us together" way rather than an "us and them" way.

Your discussion will provide such a space, a forum for a chorus of different voices, giving different perspectives, generating ideas and networks and collaborations that I hope will help all of us to build the comfortable Ireland of different drums. So many countries have got this wrong. A few have got it right. With our history we have no excuse for getting it wrong and every chance to get it right. Your work on the Immigrant Council is a valuable, long-term investment in the future health and prosperity of our society—the place I hope that gets it right. Thank you.

Speech from