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Siobhan O’Donahue was in a hurry.
Trying to nail her down for an interview, you get the impression this is a permanent state of affairs — rushing from one meeting to another, dealing with a succession of increasingly urgent cases.
The director of a drop-in centre that looks after immigrants in Dublin, Siobhan says they are picking up the problems that nobody has sought fit to deal with: schooling, housing, access to healthcare.
She argues that Ireland invited immigrants to come and work, without giving any thought to their wider impact.
“We saw them essentially as units of labour,” she says. “We didn’t see them as people with social and community needs.
“The planning and infrastructure wasn’t put in place.”
And there are plenty of people to cater for. This is a country that had few foreign residents right up until the late 1980s.
But then came an economic boom, and a relatively-poor, agricultural nation became instead the “Celtic Tiger”.
The result is that now, more than one in seven people in Ireland was born outside the country.
The largest group are Poles, about 65,000 at the most recent count, but there are Lithuanians, Czechs, and also workers from beyond the EU, from Africa and Asia.
In fact, the percentage of immigrants here rose faster in 10 years than it did in Britain over half a century.
“The entire system has been based on a declining population,” says Paul Rowe, the director of an education charity.
“The system is trying to reconfigure itself for expansion in a very short period of time. It is a huge change.”
And he should know. Last August, Paul Rowe’s charity, Educate Together, had to set up a primary school in just four weeks.
The Education Department had belatedly realised there were not enough places for immigrants’ children in the town of Balbriggan.
They had been turned down by the local schools. Like most in Ireland, they are run by the Church, and take Catholic children as a first choice.
The result was that they ended up in an emergency facility, one that caters almost exclusively for boys and girls of African or Arab origin.
“I would rather my children knew how Irish children live,” says one mother there, disappointed to see her son going to school only with other black children.
Another was more angry: “They didn’t plan it the way it should be,” she argues.
“Immigrants are really contributing to the country’s economy. They should be provided with the proper amenities.”
The Irish government insists it takes these complaints seriously.
This year, it appointed a minister for integration, Conor Lenihan.
He is perfectly frank about the challenges Ireland faces, adjusting so fast and so late in the day to mass immigration. But he also sees an advantage - that Ireland can learn from others’ mistakes.
“There’s no one country you can point to that’s actually got migration correct. There’s a great opportunity for Ireland to choose its course,” he suggests.
But Mr Lenihan is also aware of the potential tensions if Ireland experiences a downturn, something many economists see on the horizon.
“The real danger is that employers might let go of Irish workers, as opposed to the foreigners, and that could cause enormous turbulence.”
In fact the signs of that turbulence are already apparent. The most thorough European survey of attitudes to immigration showed that Irish people were averagely well-disposed to foreign workers, neither unusually welcoming nor unusually hostile compared to other EU countries.
But ask opinion on a Dublin street corner, and you will hear plenty of individuals whose attitude is decidedly resentful.
“They take the money they’re earning back out of the country,” I was told by one local. “The Irish economy is losing.”
“The money’s all being given to foreigners,” says another. “It’s not fair on the Irish public.”
Even those who support immigration are apprehensive. The Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole believes passionately that the mass arrival of foreigners has benefited his country. But he acknowledges the potential difficulties ahead.
“It’s easy to be upbeat and welcoming when the cake is getting bigger all the time. The challenge is when you move into a period of recession.
“We have to be calm, we have to avoid getting hysterical. The real test of our society is coming.”
(Posted on December 13, 2007)