“Why would they ever come here?” Imagining Immigration in Northern Ireland

>by Katharine Keenan, Teachers College, Columbia University

Writing from Belfast, where I am currently studying diversity and public space, I find myself in the midst of a national conversation about migration. Given the country’s history, which has included at times both famine and warfare, Ireland has been known primarily a site from which people emigrated, not as a destination. Indeed the most famous immigration to Northern Ireland was the plantation of Scottish farmers in the 17th Century by the first Queen Elizabeth, seeking to subdue a rowdy native population. That event has colored the popular imagination here in the North to the extent that that migration is imagined as a method of foreign occupation and oppression, while migrants are perceived as stalwart defenders of faith and culture against death by assimilation.

Yet the 21st Century has inspired a new awareness of migration, migrants, and diversity in Northern Ireland. In fact, there has been a steady inward and outward flow of migrants for centuries, from the Vikings and Normans who so strongly influence Irish cultural identity, the Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs exploring the British Commonwealth, to the thousands of return migrants, attracted home by the promise of the “Celtic Tiger” economy. But it is the massive influx of Eastern Europeans in just the past six years that has captured the imagination, and anxieties, of Northern Ireland’s population. To give an example of the scale, the Polish Association of Northern Ireland reports that between 2003 (before the European expansion) and 2010, the number of Poles in Northern Ireland increased from 300 to 30,000.

For many, the sudden increase of foreign laborers has been imagined as a threat; migrants are painted variously and incoherently as stealing jobs from the working class, or stealing benefits from the unemployed, as drunkards, drug dealers, beggars, or as harder workers. These are very common tropes, echoed in the U.S. with regard to Mexican migrants, in Germany about the Turks, and in France about Romanians. The Polish and other Eastern Europeans, however, seem to have been targeted by local xenophobias in a way that the Indian and Chinese communities in Northern Ireland haven’t.

They are economic migrants, but they are not easily grouped or pigeonholed into an economic niche, as have Chinese restaurant owners and Indian medical workers. They seek jobs in all markets, hoping to work for a period of time, learn a new language and skills, and often plan to return in a few years to their own countries with money in their pockets. Even so, restrictions on their work permissions and access to government aid make them particularly vulnerable to exploitative employers. Meanwhile, in Belfast, a city that is religiously segregated due the political Troubles, these migrants have taken up residence wherever they can find cheap housing. Unfortunately for the majority-Catholic Poles, this tends to be in the less-crowded working-class communities of Protestant Loyalists. Thus an element of sectarian strife is overlaid on xenophobic anxieties, and this has resulted in serious crimes of racial intolerance.

The injustices that migrants face are not unique to Northern Ireland. And indeed there are many people working very hard to right these wrongs. But I think these problems, specifically the anger that is focused exclusively on Eastern Europeans, reveals another aspect of the Northern Irish social imaginary that has yet to be explored. My interlocutors often expressed to me their confusion about immigration to the north. “Why would they ever come here?” “We can’t even get along with each other, let alone anyone else!” “No one immigrates to Northern Ireland. All my aunts and uncles left.”

Sadly, I think these statements reveal a profound lack of confidence among the Northern Irish about the place of their homeland on the world stage. With three decades of “the Troubles” behind them, and many still disenchanted with the peace process, the idea that anyone can see the opportunity for economic success and a better life in this place is a challenging notion. Northern Ireland currently has the lowest average standard of living, and the highest unemployment rate in the United Kingdom, with a particularly high incidence of generational unemployment. In Belfast, despite complete demilitarization, neighborhoods are actually more segregated, and recent incidents of dissident paramilitary violence have increased.

The result is a crisis of identity. Economic migration within Europe, to Northern Ireland, is forcing its population to reconsider their profoundly pessimistic perceptions of the place they are from. But it is also a direct challenge to the notions of cultural homogeneity and binary opposition that have fueled past interethnic violence in the North. Through the peace process, a new government and new social policy, Northern Ireland is actively engaged in reinventing itself as a nation. The influx of migrants seeking economic opportunity is a part of that transformation. And while the new diversity and cosmopolitanism that results is not an unwelcome change, for those who have known only poverty and violence, it is still scary and unknown. Consider how deeply etched in the American consciousness is our role as host to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Consider what would happen to our ideas about our country and ourselves if it suddenly became a place where no one wanted to come.


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